Three private client solicitors explain what drew them to this area of practice, look at their career journey, and consider what the future might hold for private client practitioners beyond lockdown
Estelle Price is a solicitor at Moore Barlow
With three years’ private client practice under my belt, what better time is there to reflect on my career to date?
Looking back to the first three seats of my training contract, I never would have imagined qualifying into the firm’s private wealth department. It was the final seat of my training contract that sparked my interest in private client law, by providing real responsibility and hands-on client contact from the outset. The rest, as they say, is history.
A key attraction was the opportunity to build a rapport with clients. The level of face-to-face contact with clients was very different to my corporate law background, but I was quickly hooked on the personal service that we provide, becoming trusted advisers to clients when they are going through tough times or facing difficult decisions.
A few years in, and still I find every day is different – it certainly keeps me on my toes!
Three years on, and there’s still nothing like the feeling of making a positive difference to someone’s life. Clients frequently come to see me because they have a problem or concern that needs to be resolved. I often joke that clients rarely arrive for that first meeting with a smile on their face. However, it gives me great satisfaction when they leave with a solution, and the feeling of relief that comes with knowing a problem has been solved.
From drafting bespoke will clauses for complex estates to preparing a deed of variation to correct the problems caused by DIY wills, I’ve enjoyed the sheer variety of cases I’ve worked on over the past three years. A few years in, and still I find every day is different – part of the attraction of the job, as it certainly keeps me on my toes!
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Some aspects of the last three years have certainly been a learning curve! As a newly qualified solicitor, I found the concept of assessing capacity daunting, but I was lucky enough to be able to draw on the experience of our well-established team. This was extremely reassuring, especially during the first year of qualification.
The future of private client law? We are yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 on this area of the profession, but the past six months have no doubt challenged private client lawyers to find ingenious ways to explain complicated concepts to clients and progress matters virtually. Seeing clients in face-to-face meetings is our bread and butter, but time will tell whether the pandemic and lockdown will have been a catalyst for increased use of technology and remote working in our day-to-day practice.
Paula Nichols is a partner at Mercers Solicitors
I started my career in a London firm based in Knightsbridge. Although my training seats included residential property, commercial and property litigation, I realised quite quickly into my private client seat that I wanted to qualify into this area.
Since leaving London in 2005, I have been at the same firm in Henley-on-Thames. In the intervening 15 years, I have never once regretted the move, nor specialising in private client work.
Private client practitioners have to have a variety of skills. A significant amount of technical legal expertise is required – the more so since the introduction of the transferable and residence inheritance tax (IHT) nil-rate bands – but equally important is the ability to think practically and have good problem-solving and people skills. Our clients let us in to their lives, and they have to trust that we will always act in their best interests and be able to suggest commonsense solutions to problems they encounter.
Our clients let us in to their lives, and they have to trust that we will always act in their best interests
Restrictions imposed by the recent lockdown have forced changes on us, and ways of working which we would have thought impossible previously. My firm’s paperless project is now well advanced: at the beginning of this year, it was a two-year project, but now some fee-earners are already 100% paperless!
We have also adjusted to remote working, including advising on wills and other matters via telephone and video calls. While the technology initially proved a challenge, I am now well-versed in accessing our systems via a remote desktop and dialling in to Zoom calls, and I believe that remote and flexible working will continue beyond the COVID-19 restrictions. Although I enjoy seeing my colleagues and working in the office, there are also benefits to working from home. I am sure that each individual and each firm will find their own balance in this: the important point is that no single approach will be right for everyone.
Chris Cumberbatch is a senior associate at Ashtons Legal
In some respects, private client hides its light under a bushel. At first blush, it appears less glamorous than corporate or litigation work, and the prospect of going into hospitals and care homes on a regular basis is off-putting to some junior lawyers. In practice, however, I have found this perception to be well off the mark: the work involved can be so broad as to afford many different types of career, some of which can be quite high profile, and it also has some unique aspects that set it apart from other types of legal work.
The personal nature of the service we provide means I have become quite close to certain clients over the years, some of whom I now count as friends. Equally, the level of trust placed in me, not only by the individuals but also by their families – and even businesses (particularly family farms in East Anglia, where I work) – means that the work seems more of a vocation and has wider societal meaning. This gives me a sense of personal value, which is recognised as important to mental health and wellbeing.
I would advise anyone starting a career in private client to take the time to define a particular legal or client interest and make it your own
I mention wide-ranging on purpose: the private client solicitor needs to know all about trusts, taxation, mental capacity law and, of course, the law of wills. However, private client can also be very specialised, either by the type of client or by the niche area of law. For several years, my own specialism has been cross-border succession planning, which I picked because I speak French and have had the opportunity to work in and around French property teams. This area of the law can be highly complex, encompassing not only the general areas described above, but also conflict of laws and the laws of other jurisdictions (particularly European), and by necessity, it brings me into contact with foreign lawyers and foreign clients. Being a dual-national myself, I understand and enjoy learning about multi-cultural lives and experiences, which my clients know and appreciate.
With COVID-19 and homeworking, giving advice remotely by video-conferencing (to which I was already accustomed) has become the norm, which to my mind is making the world smaller and more accessible – a good basis for international work.
This is why I would advise anyone starting a career in private client to take the time to define for yourself a particular legal or client interest and make it your own, building on your specialist knowledge, alongside the nuts and bolts of wills, trusts and probate law. Reflect on your personal life outside of the law: if the two things are linked, it will not just be a marriage of convenience, but something you will really enjoy, and consequently, your practice will thrive.