Reversal of fortune
8 July 2002
Think private client work, think green welly-wearing, Agatha Christie-esqe rich little old ladies with mattresses stuffed full of banknotes. You might have been on the right track a few years ago, but now, according to those in the know, we are witnessing the renaissance of the private client lawyer.
It is a well-documented fact that a whole raft of City firms pulled out of the private client market in the 1980s without so much as a backward glance. The handful of private client devotees who clung to the timbers of what was supposed to be a sinking ship have now emerged as a tight-knit set of sector specialists who between them have the market pretty much sewn up.
Thanks to the explosion of new wealth in recent years, a whole new set of super-rich individuals are now seeking bespoke legal advice, and who better to advise them than the private client teams who stuck to their guns when many others abandoned their posts all those years ago.
But as the forthcoming profiles will show, it has not exactly been a barren couple of decades for private sector lawyers, with work "pouring in from all angles", as one leading sector specialist puts it.
Now the rumour is that some big-name firms are planning to reinvent their private client practices in time to cash in on the fortunes of the very rich. So how will the existing private client practices react? We dip into the private client market to ask some major players for their thoughts on the current shape of the market and the future of the sector.
Head of department: David Long
Number of lawyers: 25 (6 partners)
Approach: Private client work is regarded as one of Charles Russell's five key areas and is responsible for 15 per cent of turnover. Around 50 per cent of the department's work is international, 15 per cent concerns probate and trust administration issues and the balance is made up by tax work. "We have a modern private client practice," claims private client partner Catriona Syed, who joined the department along with the rest of the Norton Rose team five years ago and now heads one of the department's four business development groups.
Market view: "Even with the downturn, there's still plenty of money out there," says department head David Long. "Especially international money. The trust is the most wonderful export that this country's legal system has." The firm plans to increase its proportion of international private client work from 50 to almost 80 per cent.
Future forecast: "If the Government abolishes inheritance tax then a lot of our work will disappear, but I don't think they'll do it," says Long. Syed adds: "Private client work is already two-tier and this divergence will probably increase with the best work concentrated in a few firms. Our main competition will not be from other UK firms, but from other centres such as Switzerland and New York."
Most likely to advise: City types, wealthy professionals, some landed estate owners and writers and musicians.
Head of department: Andrew Young
Number of lawyers: 38 (11 partners)
Approach: As with many private client practices, Lawrence Graham's team has its roots well and truly embedded in a "traditional" old money client base. But head of department Andrew Young says that the firm "turned sideways from the UK market" to gain an international perspective around 15 years ago, a move he claims has since been copied by rivals.
Lawrence Graham targets high net-worth individuals and is proud of its offshore and international presence. The department has tripled in size during the past five years and now accounts for 15-20 per cent of the firm's business. Lateral hires include two lawyers from Rooks Rider in February and a senior solicitor from Cayman Islands firm Maples and Calder. Strengths are multijurisdictional tax and estate planning, and more than half of the department's work is international.
Market view: "A lot of our competitors are principally private client businesses with a commercial department added on," says Young. "But we're a commercial firm with a private client arm; and an awful lot of work crosses over to us from other parts of the firm." Together with Withers and Macfarlanes, Young considers Lawrence Graham to be part of a private client super league, which has effectively cornered the top end of the market.
Future forecast: "Private client is super-fashionable now. We deal with the very rich and all that goes with them," says Young, who thinks the days of the "snooty, ivory tower" private client firm are numbered. As for the future of his own department, Young says the focus will remain fixed on the international market, while another significant lateral hire is in the pipeline.
Most likely to advise: The international super-rich, well-known global personalities, entrepreneurs, old money clients and private institutions, such as Coutts Bank. Recently acted on the estate of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie.
Payne Hicks Beach
Head of department: Senior partner Graham Brown
Number of lawyers: 10 (7 partners)
Approach: Payne Hicks Beach is a "very old, established firm" that has achieved its position in the private client market over the past quarter-century, according to the head of department and senior partner Graham Brown. "We just don't feel the need to be embarrassed about working for old money clients," he says.
Along with Withers, Brown thinks Payne Hicks is the only firm to successfully offer a combination of tax, trust and family legal advice. "These are the most famous areas of our practice and bring in between two-thirds to three-quarters of the firm's income," he adds. A notable scoop was the hire of Fiona Shackleton's team from Farrer & Co in 2001, which retained HRH Prince of Wales as a client after acting on his divorce. "We like relationships and not transactions," Brown adds firmly.
Market view: Due to the firm's Lincoln's Inn location and traditional client base, Brown fears the firm is thought of as "dusty and fuddy-duddy" by competitors. "But I'd say that they're a little envious," he continues. "Those who do know us know that we punch well above our weight. I hate that phrase, but I think it sums us up well."
Future forecast: "I think the market's going to continue as it has for the last 20 years, with consolidation," predicts Brown. "The number of firms [in this area] will get smaller and the little departments scattered around London will disappear. I also think City firms will try to reintroduce [private client work] by creating a new department willing to service rich international clients."
Most likely to advise: Landowners, family art collections, "very big English entrepreneurs" and royalty.
Head of department: Tony Thompson
Number of lawyers: 67 (34 partners)
Approach: Withers upped the stakes in the private client world when it merged with US tax and trust specialist firm Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds at the beginning of this year. It is now hailed as the world's largest private client practice. Joe Field, a senior US principal in Withers' London office, thinks the private client marketplace has become narrower.
"It's a much more specialised field," he adds. "The world's becoming a global village. People are more mobile today." Business has risen during the first six months since the merger and Withers is actively recruiting private client lawyers. The firm is looking to expand in Switzerland and the US West Coast.
Market view: "For us the market never waned," recalls Field. "There's a huge market out there for family wealth." Field, who estimates that more than 50 per cent of wealth in the US and UK is still held in private hands, is positive about the future of the private client sector. "With the recession, when times are getting tough, a lot of families are starting to ask, 'Have we protected ourselves?' It's a growing market."
Future forecast: Another major trend, according to Field, is transparency; he predicts that this area will grow over the next few years. "It's a bit of a double-edged sword," he admits. "People are looking for legal solutions and they want to start doing things in an open way. But they're anxious not to make full disclosure." The firm is also planning to focus on "individual internationals".
Most likely to advise: Members of The Sunday Times Rich List, entrepreneurs, landed clients and big names from the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.
Head of department: Richard Kirby
Number of lawyers: 31 fee-earners (8 partners)
Approach: Private client work accounts for around a quarter of Speechly Bircham's turnover and the department grew by 20 per cent last year. The work is split equally between onshore and offshore, according to department head Richard Kirby. More than 1,000 new clients were added to the books last year. "What we can bring to the party is our knowledge and expertise of the golden thread of tax, which never ceases to be tangled by the tax man," says Kirby.
Market view: "The market is polarising and only a handful of firms have the critical mass to operate," says Kirby, who claims that firms need to be able to mix the "magic cocktail" of corporate, private client and tax work in order to succeed. "[Competitors] tend to turn up their noses [and associate us] with packaged solutions," he continues. "In fact, 90 per cent of our work is bespoke and 10 per cent comes through articles written about us in the newspapers. That tends to arouse a certain amount of friendly rivalry. We couldn't run a business of 31 fee-earners just on packaged solutions." Profits per partner run at around the £300,000 mark.
Future forecast: "The seriously rich will continue to get richer and that is positive for private client lawyers," Kirby claims.
Most likely to advise: Large families and wealthy businessmen. Known clients include the Vestey family (owners of the Dewhurst butcher chain), Howard De Walden Estates (London landowners), and the Lord Lloyd Webber Arts Foundation.
Bircham Dyson Bell
Head of department: Sarah Stowell
Number of lawyers: 60 (9 partners)
Approach: More than a quarter of Birchams' staff work in the private client department, which accounts for about a third of the firm's turnover. "It's very different being in a really big private client department," says head of department Sarah Stowell. "We have a lot of influence and the other departments support us." Strengths also include the firm's offshore practice.
Market view: Despite the department's size, Stowell laments the fact that it is "not as well known as it should be". But she says that this does not affect productivity. "The market's buoyant at the moment and we have work flowing in from all angles. A lot of people have a lot of money these days," she adds.
Future forecast: "Our plan is to go on recruiting and to keep growing. I'm constantly on the lookout for new talent," says Stowell, who sifted through 30 applications to find the two lawyers she has recently recruited. "Before, there were only a handful of lawyers, and now we receive a constant stream of CVs. There's a lot of activity in this area."
Most likely to advise: Offshore trustees, lottery winners, new money and Middle England.
Mills & Reeve
Head of department: Michael Aubrey
Number of lawyers: 36 (10 partners)
Approach: Mills & Reeve has specialised in tax and trust work ever since its inception. Agriculture, tax planning and divorce are key strengths, while budding Cambridge-based entrepreneurs are considered target clients. The firm has stepped in to scoop up the work left by firms such as Eversheds, which recently pulled out of the private client market altogether. "It really was a bit of an own goal," recalls divorce partner Roger Bamber happily.
Market view: "There are a lot of private banks in Cambridge at the moment and they'd like to fish in the same pond as us," says Bamber. "It really is a hotbed of new wealth."
Future forecast: "The figure of the old-fashioned homme des affaires - the behind-the-scenes adviser or family friend - is emerging again [because] the law in this area has become so high-tech," explains Bamber. "I think it's very helpful and benefits everybody concerned."
Most likely to advise: Landed estate owners, both in East Anglia and nationally, new money in Cambridge and high net-worth individuals.
Head of department: Sue Lang
Number of lawyers: 22 (9 partners)
Approach: Boodle Hatfield's private client team notched up a 20 per cent increase in turnover last year and is currently on target to do so again this year. Department head Sue Lang is keen to recruit new blood and is proud of her two in-house specialist advisers, one providing commercial and transactional tax advice and the other doing contentious trust and probate work. Recent lateral hires came from Allen & Overy and Speechly Bircham and Lang says the firm remains very focused on private capital work.
Market view: "We're very well placed to undercut the fees of the City players and can provide a competitive service," Lang says confidently. "But I think that we're underrated in the directories at the moment and our clients tell us that." Another emerging trend is the rising volume of legal practitioners moving out of the City and into private client practice. "I think people are realising that the corporate world is a bit hazardous and there are a lot of top-rate brains leaving it because they're dissatisfied."
Future forecast: Lang, who became a private client lawyer because she says she is "nosy and bossy", feels positive about the future because the area is "reasonably recession-neutral". She adds: "Work's pouring in at the moment."
Most likely to advise: Private capital types, entrepreneurs and some old money. Known clients include Francis Bacon Estates.
Head of department: Charles Wyld
Number of lawyers: 23 (4 partners)
Approach: Burges Salmon has a good reputation in agriculture and landed estates but department head Charles Wyld is at pains to emphasise the department's focus on tax and trusts. "But we do take on a decent number of significant estates from London firms every year," he admits. While a quarter of all private client work is from the West Country, the remainder is national or international.
Market view: Burges Salmon is currently positioning itself in Europe as an expert on trusts, just as countries such as Italy are beginning to accept them as legal currency. The firm has also benefited from the fall from grace of private client work in the City and has found that many clients are happy to switch to Burges Salmon. "We have to fight harder for the work because we're not a London firm. But people are starting to think more widely," explains Wyld.
Future forecast: "People thought that private client was an old-fashioned thing, but that's simply not true," says Wyld. "The skills we have are of value to anybody who's making money these days."
Most likely to advise: Landowners, international clients and shareholders. "The people making money rather than people who've always had it," adds Wyld.
Currey & Co
Head of department: Senior partner Nicholas Smith
Number of lawyers: 9 partners
Approach: Currey & Co deals exclusively with private client work and has done so since the firm was founded in the 19th century. According to partner Nicholas Powell, a core part of the partnership's philosophy is to maintain this exclusivity and to restrict the client base to UK shores only. "One of our great strengths is being small," adds Powell. "We don't have to spend a huge amount of time on management issues and can therefore devote more time to the clients." Currey prefers to give partner service and, as a result, does not take on too many assistants. Commercial work is avoided at all costs.
Market view: "We don't do any marketing at all or any form of business development. Most of our work is a result of word-of-mouth referrals," says Powell, who regards Farrers, Macfarlanes and Withers as direct competitors. "Families are fascinating things and it's extremely interesting to watch them interact," he adds.
Future forecast: "We feel reasonably happy as we are and have no plans to make any changes," says Powell.
Most likely to advise: Old money clients, inherited wealth, landowners and rich families.
Head of department: John Rhodes
Number of lawyers: 23 (7 partners)
Approach: Macfarlanes employed 12 private client partners and just two corporate partners back in 1968, when John Rhodes first joined the firm. Although more than half of the firm's partners now work in the corporate department, the firm is still renowned for private client work, which accounts for approximately 15 per cent of the annual turnover.
Rhodes says members of the team are expected to be fully conversant with UK tax planning and probate law, but can also choose separate specialisms, such as immigration or UK/US estate planning. The team "works hard" at its overseas contacts and lawyers spend around half of their time "doing something international", according to Rhodes. Yet he stresses the importance to the firm of UK-based work. "We're English lawyers and that's what we should be doing at the end of the day," he states.
Market view: "While we know why other firms pulled out of this area, we think it was a great mistake," says Rhodes. "Back when I qualified, people were whispering that there was no future in the area. But there's still a lot of interesting work about and there always has been." Target areas include mutual funds.
Future forecast: "I think some of the big City firms will start to quietly hire [private client] people again. They won't make a big song and dance about it, of course. But we'll be delighted if they come back and aren't worried about the competition. There's more than enough work to go round."
Most likely to advise: Wealthy English families and landowners, household name individuals (such as Richard Branson) and entrepreneurs.
Radcliffes Le Brasseur
Head of department: Clara Trounson
Number of lawyers: 31 fee-earners (12 partners)
Approach: Radcliffes is a firm that "still very much advises individuals", according to head of department Clara Trounson. Historically, the tax planning and private client group brings in the highest proportion of fees, making all work in this area critical to the firm's success. Trounson describes offshore work as strong and also flags up inward investment as an area of growth. A full-time 'know-how' lawyer is charged with keeping the rest of the group up to date with developments in the area and the team also has access to an asset-tracing facility, which Trounson says is "pretty unique".
Market view: "Radcliffes has benefited from the City exodus; I'm a City refugee myself," says Trounson, an ex-Linklaters lawyer. The direct competition is seen as Farrers, Lawrence Graham, Macfarlanes and Withers, but Trounson thinks Radcliffes does not receive the attention that its private client work really warrants.
Future forecast: "Private client work can only increase," says Trounson, who thinks there is"still a lot to be done in offshore work. Radcliffes did well by scooping up abandoned City talent because, says Trounson, the firm can now offer "City-quality advice at non-City prices".
Most likely to advise: Blueblooded landowners, rich families and wealthy professionals.
Allen & Overy
Head of department: Clare Maurice
Number of lawyers: 24 (4 partners)
Approach: Allen & Overy was the only magic circle firm to retain a high-quality private client practice when all around were ditching theirs. "We help add value to other parts of the practice," says head of department Clare Maurice confidently. Notable strengths include the firm's "significant international reach" and transactional management. "We're very good at coordinating large meetings with lots of different people in different jurisdictions," adds Maurice. While she admits that the City giant's legal fees are too much for some purses, she says many clients are drawn to the firm because of its big brand name and the excellent resources on offer.
Market view: "I know Clifford Chance has been recruiting in this area at one stage because they tried to recruit some of my team," says Maurice, who is unsure what other City firms are up to now. "But it's not an area of law where you can throw lots of people in at it and make lots of money," she adds pointedly. "I doubt that the likes of Slaughter and May [are planning to] commit lots of money to a private client practice."
Future forecast: "We're all looking out for the people who can afford our fees, but there's definitely a demand. Families will keep fighting and people will keep realising that they're only mortal, so there'll be plenty of opportunities out there," says Maurice. "But things may all change in November if the Chancellor decides to move the goalposts for non-domiciliaries. It will produce a lot more work at the start and will then become a less attractive place to be."
Most likely to advise: Entrepreneurs and new money. The firm also has many international clients.
Farrer & Co
Head of department: Richard Powles
Number of lawyers: 35 (13 partners)
Approach: "We're certainly good at looking after traditional wealthy families," says department head Richard Powles firmly. "But the trouble with that is that it makes us sound like we're a 19th century firm looking after the great and good. We do look after the great and good, and we're delighted to do so, but that's not everything we do."
Long renowned as the doyen of private client firms, with clients including the Queen and Prince Philip, it is no surprise that Farrer & Co is best known for its dominance of the upper crust bracket. But Powles, who brought his private client team to Farrers from Rowe & Maw in 1999, says that around a third of the client base is "traditional" old money, a further third has an "offshore angle", while the rest is new money from people with "a couple of million upwards" in their bank accounts.
Market view: "You have to have a real expertise in this field. Only a few people know anything about settled property and exempt chattels," says Powles. "The most successful private client firms are those that concentrate on their basic private client practice, which is the law as it affects the private client and his money."
Future forecast: Powles expects more firms to stop their private client work and predicts that the majority of work in this area will be done by "half a dozen firms in London" in the not-too-distant future, while firms in the provinces continue to gather momentum. As for the City firms that pulled out in the 1980s, Powles expects that some will be happy to resuscitate their practices "for the right people".
Most likely to advise: The Royal family, offshore clients, wealthy professional thirty-somethings. The firm boasts some of the country's largest landowners as clients.