An anonymous junior lawyer lists some of the things they wish they’d known when first starting out in their career in private client practice
I have been qualified as a solicitor for over 15 months now, specialising in wills, trusts, tax, probate and Court of Protection work. I’ve learned that no amount of training can prepare you as a private client solicitor for what your job might throw at you. Here are a few examples from my colleagues’ and my own experience.
1. Oaths and statutory declarations
Inevitably, it will be the junior members of a firm who will be called upon to carry out the swearing of oaths and statutory declarations. Inevitably, it will also be the junior members who have no idea what they are doing at first.
It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the process of swearing oaths and statutory declarations, as well as the requirements for completing these, before you are called upon at the last minute. I was not taught this on the Legal Practice Course or during my training contract, and I don’t think any of my peers at other firms were either. Check whether the relevant wording is available for you to recite from a card, as well as the religious books which your office holds.
Thankfully, the swearing of oaths is no longer necessary for grants of probate, so that’s one less thing to worry about. However, you may still be called upon to complete statutory declarations in other areas, such as transactions involving land.
2. Registering a death for the first time
Your supervisor tells you that you need to register a client’s death. This may sound simple: you just need to first pop to the hospital to pick up the papers the registrar will need. However, after speaking to staff, they ask whether you would like to view the body. Well, you suppose it makes sense – it might be part of the formalities? Perhaps the registrar will ask for confirmation that you saw the body?
I was unprepared for my first visit to the client’s property. All I can say is that I felt like I was on the set of Silent Witness in my forensic suit
You follow the member of staff to the morgue, who proceeds to show you a person who is, apparently, your deceased client. It begins to dawn on you that perhaps you forgot to mention you were from a law firm and not related or known to the deceased. Slightly baffled, you murmur the appropriate words in a respectful, mournful way. You leave the hospital with the papers for the registrar and proceed to register the death.
Months later, you mention to your supervisor that everything is progressing well on the estate administration and that you picked up some of the deceased’s personal items from the hospital when you viewed the body. Your supervisor is puzzled: it transpires that viewing the body is not required to register a death.
This actually happened to a colleague of mine. I stress this is an unusual scenario – I think that the staff at the hospital must have thought she was a member of the deceased’s family, and so invited her to view the body. Being new to private client work at the time, she did not realise this was not normal procedure.
3. When things become more involved
Sometimes, it falls on the private client solicitor to carry out tasks which no one told you about at university or during your training contract. This can be the case particularly where the partners in your firm are the executors of an estate.
I speak from experience here. The circumstances of a client’s death were sad; they had no close family and their body was not found for a significant period. The property had to be fumigated and then completely cleared. The first step, of course, was to find the papers required to register the death and begin the estate administration.
Not being accustomed to the smells which this set of circumstances produced, I was unprepared for my first visit to the client’s property. All I can say is that I felt like I was on the set of Silent Witness in my forensic suit. I cannot recommend Vicks VapoRub enough – every junior practitioner needs to have this to hand, should they ever be in this position.
As the deceased had no close family, it fell on me to register the death (now mindful of the fact that I was not required to view the body). The next step was arranging the funeral, an unusual set of circumstances when you never met the person during their life, particularly when the funeral director asks you what the deceased should be dressed in and what type of coffin / casket you would like. I was also asked which music the deceased enjoyed (I did not have a clue, but friends of the deceased were helpful here – I suggest choosing something neutral). An even stranger experience was attending the funeral (where there was to be no service) on behalf of the executors.
It is safe to say this has been a file of many firsts. I have learnt that it is essential to have a full set of protective clothing in the office (complete with overshoes), that no amount of Vicks VapoRub is too much, and to just go along with it.
If you have any anecdotes or personal stories which you would like to share with other Private Client Section members, please email Duncan.firstname.lastname@example.org. A selection may be published in future editions.