Chris Claxton-Shirley qualified into private client work two years ago. He explains how his initial expectations were confounded, and how to tell whether private client work could be for you
I qualified into private client in September 2018. Private client was the third department I worked in during my training contract. Prior to starting my six months with the private client team, I’d had little exposure to private client law. Although the Legal Practice Course had a compulsory module on the basics of wills and inheritance tax, I didn’t have a particular interest in the subject and did not take it as an elective.
Many people I spoke to before qualifying told me I would draft “boring” wills all day and that I would not be challenged. Well, as soon as I started in private client, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be bored. I would say that private client work is quite ‘meeting-heavy’, with a lot of face-to-face contact, which I quickly began to enjoy. I soon learnt that the work is extremely varied – in one meeting, we would be dealing with succession planning (planning for a client’s future needs), and in the next, helping to obtain a court order for someone lacking mental capacity.
One of the first main decisions I had to take in my career was whether to act for individuals or companies. Once I had decided on the former, it was then a choice between contentious or non-contentious work, and my personality fit better with non-contentious work – private client just felt like a natural fit.
A will needs to be completed urgently if the client is unlikely to survive for long. These sorts of instructions, by their very nature, are always difficult and demanding, but it is rewarding to know you have helped the client at the end of their life
My workload is extremely varied and not limited to the preparation of wills. I also specialise in preparing lasting powers of attorney (LPAs) (which allow someone else authority to make decisions for you if you are no longer able to yourself); administration of estates (where an individual has died and their property needs to be dealt with in accordance with a will or the rules of intestacy); Court of Protection applications (for example, applying for a deputyship for someone who lacks capacity to make decisions and has not prepared an LPA); administration of trusts (a separate structure where assets are held for the benefit of beneficiaries); and succession planning advice.
The work is exciting and demanding, you never quite know what you are going to get when you walk into the next meeting. If you enjoy variety, then private client will not disappoint you. I also enjoy court applications and, although my work is non-contentious, I am pleased to still be able to get to grips with obtaining orders for my clients, where needed.
Private client law is a very technical area, and there is no substitute for getting your head around what the legislation says. You need to be intellectually sharp and able to process complex rules and information. However, the real challenge is explaining it to the client with clear, practical advice tailored to their circumstances. This is the case for many areas of the law, but private client practice is particularly ‘law-heavy’. The rules and exemptions change frequently and it’s essential to keep up to date.
One of the reasons I decided to qualify into private client work was the client contact. I deal directly with all my own clients. I enjoy the responsibility this brings, and the ability to forge strong, lasting relationships and really get to know my client’s concerns and needs so I can advise them appropriately. I have learned from my colleagues that if you do a good job for a client, you can end up acting for many generations of the same family.
Private client work can also be very fast paced. For example, a will needs to be completed urgently if the client is unlikely to survive for long. These sorts of instructions, by their very nature, are always difficult and demanding, but it is rewarding to know you have helped the client at the end of their life.
With an ageing population, private client law will continue to expand and develop, as issues around mental capacity and undue influence are likely to become more common. For me, it is a real privilege to be able to help clients at often the most challenging times, including the loss of a loved one, which has to be one of the most difficult things any of us is forced to deal with in our lives. If you enjoy building strong relationships with clients and like a varied workload, private client law may well be for you. Even if you decide to qualify into a different area, private client will give you an excellent grounding.