What’s it all about?
Some people may think of private client law as dry and dusty - well, it’s not. Private client lawyers deal with real problems faced by real people. In fact, one of the most rewarding elements of this type of law is getting to know individuals and helping them with their personal affairs. So there is a real human element to the work of the private client lawyer, but at the same time it is an intellectually demanding and rapidly changing field. For those who enjoyed equity and trusts at law school and relish research and the opportunity to get involved in so-called black-letter law, this is definitely an area that should be considered.
The term ‘private client’ covers a wide range of work.
It has traditionally meant anything that involves private individuals rather than organisations as clients but today the term is more typically used to describe wills and probate, trusts and tax planning. Very often, there will be a cross-over into other fields such as matrimonial or property law. There is also scope for litigators because things don’t always go to plan. Contentious private client lawyers deal with challenges to wills, claims against estates by family members who have not been provided for, trust and contractual disputes and disputes with HM Revenue & Customs over tax.
The working culture
Working hours for private client lawyers depend largely on the type of firm you are working at. Regional practices are more likely to allow normal office hours (9am to 5pm), while some London firms may require you to work the occasional evening or weekend. But when all’s said and done you are more likely to find yourself with free time than your colleagues in the banking or corporate departments.
Private client work is diverse and no two days are likely to be the same. But again, the nuts and bolts of your daily life will depend on what sort of organisation you choose to work at. High street or small regional firms may suit those who want to be big fish in small ponds. Here, you are likely to be given our own caseload from day one, dealing with probate or perhaps drafting simple wills. So there will be less supervision involved but more opportunity for personal development.
At the other end of the scale you may find yourself assisting with devising tax schemes for extremely wealthy individuals, setting up private trust companies and acting for the rich and famous. Offshore trust work is still booming while multi-jurisdictional issues are becoming increasingly commonplace - a lot of cases now have some sort of international element. So for those who choose to specialise in this area of law there could well be opportunities for travel to sunny destinations.
All the areas mentioned above require specific skills. For example, a will is one of the most important documents a person will ever have to sign so impeccable drafting ability is essential. Meanwhile, dealing with bereaved relatives demands an exceptional degree of sympathy and understanding, and any lawyer dealing with the administration of estates needs to be able to demonstrate these qualities. Of course, tax is a highly complicated and technical area and an analytical mind is vital. Those on the contentious side where there are often no right or wrong answers, will need to be pretty thick-skinned and thrive on pressure. They should also be capable of coping with the often unpredictable nature of private client litigation by demonstrating the ability to think quickly and take the initiative.
One quality common to all private client lawyers is the ability to communicate accurately, concisely and coherently. Very often the legal concepts lawyers in this field seek to convey to their clients are difficult to understand, so you should be able to explain complicated theories clearly both in writing and orally, as well as describe their practical effects.
The Law Commission’s recent report on family provision and intestacy looks set to change the succession laws in this country. Many feared this would be a precursor of ‘forced heirship’ but in the event the proposed changes turned out to be modest, giving cohabitees greater rights and simplifying the rules for surviving spouses. There has also been a considerable amount of discussion about pre-nuptial agreements of late, and the Law Commission will shortly be reviewing the rules in this area. It may be that it recommends the introduction of enforceable agreements. Lasting powers of attorney allow a donor to appoint a trusted person to look after them and their assets should they lose mental capacity. Simpler and shorter forms have recently been introduced, and it is hoped that this will encourage more people to go ahead with making these powers of attorney. This would be less costly than the alternative of appointing a deputy to perform the task. This year’s so-called emergency Budget saw chancellor George Osborne announce changes to the tax regime. The rate of capital gains tax went up, largely for political reasons, while the Tories’ plan to raise the inheritance tax threshold was apparently frustrated by the Liberal Democrats and now looks unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
All these developments are evidence of the ways in which private client law is constantly evolving, providing all the ingredients for a fascinating, challenging and rewarding career.
Richard Sims, solicitor, Mishcon de Reya