Put simply…

Private client lawyers work with individuals and families, providing legal advice on a variety of matters such as investments, taxation, estate management, wills and testamentary issues. Private clients are usually very rich and high net worth individuals, or landowners who hold massive amounts of properties and other assets. Private client lawyers also tend to deal with charities too. These might be small, not-for-profit associations or fully-fledged organisations that are run like a business and have immense budgets.

The main objective of a private client lawyer is to provide advice which will help preserve, build and maintain wealth and establish trusts. They will also offer prudent guidance on matters, such as inheritance tax and capital gains tax.

Why is it important? What does it involve?

The workload of a typical private client lawyer might be comprised of drafting wills, executing the terms of the will in the instance of death, and the subsequent disbursement of properties and assets. You will also help clients to look after and grow their wealth, locally or internationally. As such, private client lawyers will also be required to apply tax law in many cases. Most firms will have separate departments where private client and charity work is handled.

Private client lawyers working for charitable bodies will provide legal services for registration, restructuring, creating charters or trust deeds, compliance with statutory and local authorities and regular management and disbursement of funds, which have been received or earned for charitable endeavours. Other activities will include providing investment advice, helping to set up offshore trusts, drafting contracts and business proposals and handling sponsorships.

Private client practice is an ever-burgeoning field. Immense advances in several emerging markets have created a fresh breed of millionaires and billionaires across the globe. Consequently, lawyers in this area have their hands full with plenty of work, and there’s more to come in the future. There is also an increasing demand for lawyers specialising in private client and charity practice.

Break it down for me a little bit!

Private client lawyers must have excellent people management skills. They will need to handle communications, discussions and negotiations articulately and efficiently. A comprehensive knowledge of law and commercial matters when dealing with taxation, inheritance, investments and trusts is essential.

They must have a particular aptitude for wading through tons of rules and regulations and be able to structure matters in a manner that is most beneficial to their client; saving on costs, whilst still being compliant with the law.

It’s advantageous for private client lawyers to have a good understanding of the foreign markets where clients hold their assets and funds. They may also need to interact and coordinate with people abroad and deal with organisations that operate offshore or in overseas tax havens.

These careers could involve some degree of international travel. However, there will also be long hours and, as always, an ungodly amount of documentation to get through. 

A Day in the Life of Rachel Aldous, Private Client Law Trainee at Penningtons Solicitors LLP

I usually arrive at the office between 9am and 9.30am. The private client department has a group meeting every Tuesday morning at 9.30am. These meetings usually last about half an hour and provide an opportunity for everybody in the department to comment on their workload, any business development activities they have been involved in, and to highlight any technical points that have arisen. 

Sometimes these meetings incorporate a Legal Network Television training session (LNTV). This involves watching a DVD on a topical issue and answering follow up questions. The first thing I do in the morning is make myself a cup of tea, essential preparation for a day’s work! I check my emails, open the post for one of the partners in the department and distribute it to the relevant fee earners.  

As a trainee in the private client department, I have been kept busy with a wide variety of interesting responsibilities. Typical tasks I undertake include drafting, or reviewing, documents (for example, wills, codicils and various trust deeds), conducting research (quite a bit of which is on points of tax law), assisting on probate files (including collecting in assets, completing inheritance tax returns and drafting estate accounts) and drafting simple letters of advice. 

I have had the opportunity to attend a number of meetings with clients. I would usually be expected to make notes during the meeting and to write these up for the partner or fee earner to review. Following initial client meetings, the relevant partner/fee earner will often involve me in the follow up work and on-going correspondence with the client. All the work that I am involved in is supervised and checked by a partner before it is sent out to the client. 

I have assisted all the members of the team, including partners, consultants and fee earners. So not only have I had exposure to different work and clients, but I have also developed an understanding of how different people work. I have been involved in helping to review and update extracts from a textbook for law practitioners as a number of Penningtons partners are revision editors for this publication. I have also had the opportunity to assist on two pro-bono matters; both applications to register charities. I have attended Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) presentations along with others in the department and a ladies discussion group for women working in the private client field.

I usually have my lunch sometime between 1pm and 2pm. We have a small kitchen area where I usually eat with the other trainees in my year. About once a week, we treat ourselves to lunch out; there are plenty of sandwich bars and pubs to choose from not far from the office.

I usually leave the office between 6pm and 7pm. Nearly every Friday, a group of us including trainees, newly qualified solicitors, members of the business development and accounts  teams (and on occasion partners too) will have a few drinks at one of the local pubs. I have also been to a number of Penningtons organised events including a pub quiz and a young professionals networking event which we hosted at the Southbank centre.

Daily Diary

09:00

Arrive at office between 9.00am and 9.30am.

Make cup of tea and check emails. 

09:30

Department meeting.

10:00

Opening and distributing post. Replying to emails

11:00

Accompanying a partner to a client meeting at the office. Making notes during the meeting.  

12:00

Writing up attendance note from client meeting. Drafting simple Wills for new clients. Sending to partner for approval. 

13:00

Lunch

14:00

Preparing Will commentary and letter to client. 

15:00

Phoning/writing letters recollecting in assets on probate file. 

16:00

Tax research on the remittance rules. 

17:00

Writing up results of tax research.

18:00

Home

19:00

Attending a Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) talk. 

written by Alexandra Clark at Mills & Reeve, an Associate in the private client team

Can you give us a brief overview of what private client law is really all about?

Private client lawyers help clients to structure their affairs to protect their assets and to achieve tax efficiency for the benefit of the next generation.  This includes guiding clients through complicated inheritance tax and capital gains tax regimes, assisting them to understand the options that are available to them, drafting and advising on Wills and family settlements, administering estates and trusts and powers of attorney.

As people are living longer but not always healthier, demand for private client services is increasing.

What are some of the daily tasks that you come across when working in this area of law?

The work is varied but generally involves advising a wide range of clients from trustees of family trusts to individuals on helping them to establish effective, flexible and tax efficient plans for succession.

This can include:

  • analysing clients’ assets and advising on their likely inheritance tax liability, including advising on the likelihood of securing agricultural property relief, business property relief and making use of the surplus cash exemption;
  • advising on the availability of the transferable nil rate band and timing of gifts to limit inheritance tax and capital gains tax liabilities and weighing up the pros and cons of making gifts to a trust v outright gifts;
  • drafting UK Wills (dealing with worldwide assets where relevant) and Codicils;
  • creating lifetime settlements and deeds of appointment and retirement of trustees (offshore and onshore including deeds of release/chains of indemnity);
  • advising UK resident and non-domiciled clients on inheritance tax planning;
  • administering estates of UK domiciled clients, preparing deeds of variation and advising beneficiaries; and
  • considering issues of mental capacity and drawing up and registering lasting powers of attorney.

Why did you choose to specialise/qualify in private client law?

The intellectual challenge is the most enjoyable aspect for me – I practice in an area where both the law and the client circumstances can be quite complex.  Our clients have a wide range of aims and priorities and the key is in recognising that one size doesn’t fit all.  It’s rewarding to work closely with individuals to achieve an outcome that is tailored to suit their and their family’s needs.

The law itself is constantly changing and there are a vast number of nuances so it is possible to develop a specialism.

In your experience, what qualities or attributes does a lawyer need to work in private client law?

Private client law is complex and there is no substitute for getting to grips with what the legislation actually says and so a private client lawyer must be academically up for the challenge.  However, the key to being a good private client lawyer is translating that technical analysis into genuine advice that is clear, relevant and practical and tailored to the client’s circumstances. 

It goes without saying that private client lawyers must have excellent client skills, be likable, friendly and empathetic with clients but similarly, private client lawyers must be resilient as it is not always about delivering good news!  Being able to develop and maintain relationships is key as often we will act for several generations of the same family.

What kind of clients do you find yourself working with most?

Anyone can benefit from tax planning but I predominantly work with high-net worth individuals including landowners, entrepreneurs and trustees of family trusts and their advisers where relevant.

How would you describe your workload? Do busy periods alternate with lulls or is it all go, go, go?

As our clients are private individuals, instructions for new work tend to dip during holiday seasons, most notably summer and for our farming clients, during harvest.  Generally there is a constant work stream with peaks around the start of new tax years and budgets.

In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in private client law?

Private client work is technically demanding and it’s the unknown that keeps you on your toes; no two clients are the same and although they may seem it on first appearance, it’s that one variable that potentially changes their tax status which means you need to go back to the legislation to check that you haven’t missed something.  A slipup here could potentially mean that the client faces financial penalties.

We also have to keep a very watchful eye on the budget as that can have a massive impact on our clients.

In a similar vein, what is the most rewarding aspect of working in private client law?

Securing successful results for clients.  For example, successfully negotiating the availability of business property relief from inheritance tax with HMRC which results in a tax saving for the client.

Where do you see your career progressing from here?

Continuing to deliver advice that actually delivers advice and developing a specialism.

Have you had any particularly memorable cases while working in private client law? Can you tell us a little bit more about one (confidentiality permitting, of course!)?

I assisted with re-structuring land-owning trusts and the family farming company to achieve equality between four sons.  Counsel advised on the creation of sub-funds and I prepared the complex trust re-structure appropriations and appointments to create separate funds.  The parents were extremely grateful as their overriding priority was to retain the farm in the family and in single ownership but without treating their sons differently.

What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers looking to eventually qualify in private client law?

Try to get as much experience as you can across all your seats as a trainee as it helps to understand the wider context.  For example it is helpful to know how companies operate and how shares are issued so you know how to interpret company accounts.  Also, as a private client lawyer you are likely to find yourself working closely with property colleagues and so it is helpful to have an understanding of their work type and what it is they do. 

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