Young private client solicitor Elin Dukes reflects on what drew her to the practice area, and what firms can do to attract more talent at trainee level
My initial attraction to the law came more from academic interest than any great desire to become a solicitor, much less a private client solicitor. I have always enjoyed learning, and law seemed a both interesting and useful subject to have in my repertoire. Having studied law and gained work experience in law firms, my interest grew and I decided to embark upon a career as a solicitor.
In my experience, few law students yearn to become private client solicitors; this is borne out by the falling numbers of young solicitors entering this practice area. Those of us who do end up specialising in private client law have tended to stumble across it at some point during their training. I think one reason for this lack in interest is that there is not enough exposure to private client law at law school. During my Legal Practice Course (LPC), though it was compulsory, the private client module was somewhat glossed over and took place over a one-week period at the beginning of the two-year part-time course. Private client was very much left in the shadows of litigation and business law, which were pushed much more vigorously.
At university level, the focus was on equity and trusts, which gave private client law a duller air when compared to the ‘glamour’ of working for large companies or the grittiness of criminal or family law. I have found private client to be a hugely rewarding and interesting area of law, and do not feel that my studies were reflective of the realities of practice.
This being the case, it is up to private client departments themselves to attract the next generation of practitioners. Presenting what this practice area can offer could convince many trainees who are unsure of which path to pursue to give it a go.
I trained with a high street firm offering a broad range of practice areas and was fortunate in that I could choose my own seats. I opted for private client, despite minimal academic experience in the subject, because throughout my studies, I had little enthusiasm for either business or property law, and I felt I would be better suited to representing the interests of individuals rather than companies.
The firm had a strong presence locally, and private client was one of the most successful departments. My supervisor was a truly inspirational practitioner who had a wonderful combination of technical knowledge and a true passion for the work and her clients. Almost immediately upon starting my private client seat, I knew I had discovered something really fulfilling. The work was varied and challenging and I liked the idea of practising in an area which would continue to stimulate me for many years to come.
As anticipated, working as a qualified private client solicitor has been challenging. The variety of work covered by private client practitioners is so broad that, even after two-and-a-half years I still find myself dealing with issues I have never before encountered. Some aspects have, of course, become a lot easier, but the variety is such that the work has yet to become routine, and I continue to learn and develop my skills every day.
I have recently moved to a firm based in West Sussex, Bennett Griffin LLP, where I specialise in powers of attorney, Court of Protection and clients at risk. I was pleased to have the opportunity to develop this niche, as it is a growing area in private client practice and allows me to concentrate on the work that I enjoy the most. Having worked with two of the country’s panel deputies and currently being a committee member for the STEP Mental Capacity Special Interest Group, concentrating on these particular aspects of private client suits me very well. I enjoy working for high street firms, and like the interaction that it allows me to have with local clients.
Having so recently become more specialised, I am keen to develop my area of expertise, and hope to contribute to the firm’s reputation for its knowledge of and commitment to assisting the vulnerable and their families.
I feel strongly that there should be greater awareness of capacity issues generally and, more specifically, among solicitors. I have signed up to be a Dementia Friend, an Alzheimer’s Society initiative to increase awareness of dementia across the country, and would encourage more solicitors, whatever their practice area, to do so.
As a solicitor, it is vital to ensure that clients have the capacity they require in order to undertake various legal transactions, and it may be difficult for practitioners who do not face this issue day to day to pick up on potential warning signs. Capacity is a far less black-and-white issue than many practitioners realise, and I believe that capacity awareness, knowing how to detect whether capacity may be an issue, and improving one’s ability to explain the law more clearly should be a mandatory part of the skills element at LPC level. Given the UK’s ever-increasing average life expectancy and the linked rise in dementia, this can only become even more pertinent for the future generation of solicitors.