Private client law: area of practice

This area is less deadline driven than transactional areas of practice, but it’s always busy, explains Jenny Smithson – a partner at Macfarlanes.

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I’d like to dispel the myth that this area is all green wellies and Barbour jackets; rather it has a highly international, and often entrepreneurial, aspect.

A typical private client workload involves:

  • estate
  • succession and tax planning
  • structuring wealth to pass down the generations
  • elements of trust management (advising trustees on the administration of trusts)
  • aspects of probate and charity work – often for high-net-worth private individuals.

My firm is unusual in that it is one of the last City law firms to maintain a significant private client department alongside its strong corporate teams. As a result, I also get involved in large, complex personal and structural issues – such as the reorganisation of asset holding structures, which usually have a cross-border aspect.

What is working life like for a private client solicitor?

Private client work differs from the transactional work that private equity or banking lawyers carry out. Expect to juggle ten different matters in a day rather than one or two big deals. You won’t know what your day will be like when you come into the office and it will soon fill up with appointments. However, this area is less deadline driven, and therefore more controllable, than transactional work.

Private client lawyers travel fairly regularly to see clients. I have been to Guernsey, New York, Switzerland and Paris in recent years. Clients include entrepreneurs, trustees, private banks, charities, individuals and family offices (an organisation that assumes the day-to-day management and administration of a family’s financial and tax affairs). I’d like to dispel the myth that this area is all green wellies and Barbour jackets; rather it has a highly international, and often entrepreneurial, aspect.

Typically, teams are made up of a partner, one or two associates, and a trainee. Private client lawyers work with colleagues are the firm, such as corporate tax specialists, regulatory lawyers etc.

The working hours of a private client solicitor

Typical hours for a private client lawyer working in a large private client firm outside the City might by 9.00 am to 6.00 pm or 7.00 pm. Being part of a City law firm, I work longer hours than that (typically 8.30 am to 8.30 pm). The best part of the job is the variety of work and questions clients ask us. The worst part of the job is the juggling – constantly having to manage multiple competing demands on your time.

What trainee solicitors experience in private client seats

Trainees can expect to be called into a client meeting at the drop of a hat, where they’ll take notes and carry out follow-up work afterwards. Trainees are often asked to prepare the first draft of a will, draft trust deeds or prepare immigration visa applications.

Researching a gritty tax or trust law point is another typical trainee task. Sometimes I ask trainees to get involved in writing articles for legal publications or the firm’s websites.

What developments should students be aware of?

Students should be aware that one major recent change in this area was the 2017 reforms to the UK taxation of non-UK domiciled individuals . Also, there’s been a definite and positive trend away from aggressive ‘cowboy’ tax planning in the industry, and a move towards quality advice and transparent planning.

The skills good private client solicitors need

  • Empathy: clients are more likely to be lay people than professionals, possibly coming to you at an emotional time.
  • An ability to build rapport.
  • Technical ability.
  • Organisational skills: being able to multitask is essential when juggling ten matters at once.

Types of law practised by private client solicitors

  • Personal trusts.
  • Personal tax.

JENNY SMITHSON is a partner at MACFARLANES . She graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in law with law studies in Europe.

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