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Private client law: area of practice

Empathy and emotional intelligence are important attributes for a successful private client solicitor, explains Kirstie McGuigan – a partner at Taylor Wessing.
There is always a need for advice in this area thanks to life’s two certainties: death and taxes.

The two core skills that a private client lawyer needs are technical excellence and strong people skills. Whether it’s helping an elderly client to pass on his or her estate, or structuring the major assets of the world’s wealthiest families, the work involves a tremendous variety of legal and practical issues that need to be solved.

The variety of legal cases in private client work

A private client lawyer typically handles a large number of cases at any one time. The large variety of work includes:

  • drafting wills, powers of attorney or other legal documents
  • handling probate and executorship matters
  • negotiating with the tax authorities in the UK or overseas
  • helping to structure the purchase of houses, companies or expensive artwork of the world’s wealthiest families
  • using companies or trusts in the UK or elsewhere
  • dealing with disputes involving estates and trusts.

Usually the legal team working on private client matters will be small (a partner, associate and trainee), but will often form part of a team of other external advisers (accountants, financial advisers or non-UK lawyers) working on the client’s affairs. Being able to work in such a team – and often leading the team where UK tax is a concern – is a key requirement and a fascinating part of the work. There is scope for travel: from visiting a landed estate in Cumbria to meeting with the mobile rich in Monaco. The variety of clients is immense: from titled landowners with inherited wealth to entrepreneurs or celebrities with ‘new money’. The best part of the job is dealing with these interesting, sometimes high-profile, people – getting to know them very well and helping to steer them through the tax and legal hurdles they face to achieve their objectives. The downside is working with the sheer length and complexity of our tax legislation – perhaps the longest and most complex in the world.

The key issues in this area at the moment are the myriad of tax changes and consultations initiated by the UK government since 2011 and which show no real sign of slowing down and so are likely to stimulate a lot of work in the next few years. There is also a major focus in the media on international wealth and tax issues, and the regulation and increased transparency of offshore financial centres will make for interesting times for clients and advisers.

The working hours of a private client solicitor

The hours for a private client lawyer tend to be more regular than for commercial lawyers, but that can be tempered by clients expecting their trusted advisers to be accessible at unusual times of the day or week. Tax is often a driver, and getting things done in a particular tax year can give rise to exceptionally busy periods in March and April. When the government announces any tax changes clients and their advisers have to react quickly.

Why this area of practice is recession-proof

Private client work is considered to be very recession-proof and there is always a need for advice in this area thanks to life’s two certainties: death and taxes. The last few years of economic difficulty have shown that private client work can be counter-cyclical and thrive even in tough times.

What trainee solicitors experience in private client seats

Expect to get involved with clients, working in a team and liaising with other professional advisers from day one. Because of the size of the legal teams working on a case, trainees will usually take on a lot of responsibility and carry out a vital project management role. Trainees will often draft wills or deeds and carry out technical research into tax or legal points that will then need to be translated into tailored advice for a particular problem.

The skills good private client solicitors need

  • Strong intellect and ability to think creatively.
  • Technical drafting and analytical skills.
  • Empathy and emotional intelligence.

Types of law practised by private client solicitors

  • Wills and probate.
  • Personal tax and trusts.
  • Powers of Attorney and Court of Protection work.
  • Contentious trusts and estates.

KIRSTIE MCGUIGAN is a partner in the private client department at TAYLOR WESSING LLP. in London. Kirstie qualified in 2004, having completed her law degree at the University of Liverpool and the LPC at The University of Law, Chester.