In the first of a new series of interviews with private client practitioners, outgoing Section chair Gary Rycroft of Joseph A Jones & Co in Lancaster, looks at his career to date, what’s in his in-tray, and the current challenges faced by private client solicitors.
Joseph A Jones & Co LLP in Lancaster. We are a three-partner high street firm dealing only with private client and property matters. Marketing people would call us ‘niche’, which I guess we are. We have deliberately remained a small firm based in one office, as we believe it helps us manage the business and serve our clients in an optimum way. I became senior partner in April, which feels wrong aged (only) 45, but it’s a role I am enjoying and I now wear a big woolly cardigan whenever possible!
I commenced my training contract in 1996 and qualified in 1998. I have always worked in private client law, and have always got on well with older people; when I was 10, I had a pen pal called Olive who was in her 80s, who I met when I was on holiday with my parents in Lanzarote. Of course, I don’t want to characterise private client work as being all about grannies – it is far from it – but having a genuine interest in other people and what makes them tick is helpful.
During my training contract (which was at another firm in Lancaster), I had to prepare a deathbed codicil for a client who was in King Edward VII’s Hospital in London. So I had to get the train down, take instructions from my client and then handwrite the codicil. The will set up a charity, so it was fairly complex and long-winded. I was very pleased when the will and codicil were proved, and it sealed my love of private client work. There can be much drama in living and dying.
A good lawyer never stops learning or listening. What are the big challenges in private client? The relentless drive towards the digitisation of virtually everything is wonderful in some respects – it is empowering to individuals and professionals – but it can be disheartening when the public think they can do everything for themselves without advice. Lasting powers of attorney and probate are the obvious examples. Our challenge as private client specialists is to show what added value we bring in terms of our experience, expertise and wisdom. The most rewarding work is when you feel you have made a difference; it’s even better when clients acknowledge that!
My caseload comprises estate planning, estate administration and a healthy dollop of contentious probate. I find dealing with some litigators to be more about point-scoring for the sake of it rather than substance. In litigation matters, I feel like I’m a tortoise rather than a hare! Something else that’s been in my in-tray for a while is drafting guidance for the Law Society on how to deal with digital assets in wills and on death. It’s a fascinating area and one that is going to be increasingly important. I’m also nearly at the end of the Law Commission’s consultation on making a will; I want to get my response in before the November deadline.
Thank goodness I’ve never had a case in the headlines – I have a dread of appearing as a protagonist in a Lesley King case law update! However, there have been many times when I’ve gone home thinking ‘that was a good day’, as there have been many small victories. Straightforward cases still mean a great deal to the clients concerned. For example, when an elderly client ‘gifted’ her flat to a relative, but didn’t really understand what she had been asked to sign (by her previous solicitor), it was great to get the flat back for her. I also saw a client in the supermarket the other day and he said he still laughs when he remembers calling into the office with his now late wife to sign their wills on the last day before the Christmas holiday – I was dressed as an elf!
There seem to be more people who want to deal with probate themselves. Much of this is driven by costs and, in many cases, a misapprehension about what they will be. We are trying to address this by showing to clients what we can offer in term of estate administration, including a breakdown of the different elements involved and an explanation of the advantages of using a regulated and insured professional who is independent from the client’s family.
It would have been useful to have the inside track on the various knee-jerk political policy-making of various chancellors. The current mess which is inheritance tax is a headache, and when there are such shifting sands, it makes giving advice tricky.
I once worked as a nightclub bouncer in Japan.