Private client

Private client

Tom Lawrence

Howes Percival LLP

University: University of Hull
Degree: Law

A private client solicitor looks after the affairs of individual clients and trustees, planning and managing all aspects of their finances, including wills and probate, onshore and offshore trusts, and tax matters. Private client lawyers also handle a wide range of charity work, advising on specific legal issues as well as on commercial and property matters that affect charitable organisations and the establishment of charities. Private client work is booming and, increasingly, multi-jurisdictional issues are becoming more important for private client lawyers as a result of acting for clients who are based outside the United Kingdom or who own assets in various countries throughout the world.

The legal profession was of early interest to Tom Lawrence with his father practising as a local solicitor. After completing his law degree at the University of Hull, Tom returned to his home city of Norwich to train as a solicitor, only briefly considering the Bar as an option. “At the time I was thinking that I might want to follow a career in the law, direct access to barristers was not available and I knew that I wanted to be involved with clients from an early stage,” he recalls. “And I’m happy to admit that standing up on my feet all day in court was not something that really appealed to me!”

Tom trained at Norwich firm Leathes Prior starting in 2003. “It was a really interesting two years and I learnt a lot – there were plenty of opportunities to take on responsibilities which I enjoyed greatly,” he explains. “It was a supportive environment, with good quality work.”

After qualifying, Tom continued on at Leathes Prior for nearly two years before being given an opportunity at another local firm to progress his career, where he stayed for five years and in that time was appointed as one its partners and head of the private client, tax and trusts team. Tom was then approached to join Howes Percival as a director, where he has been ever since.

Now a partner of the firm’s estates team, Tom’s specialises in advising the firm’s non-landed private clients. “These are primarily business and entrepreneurial clients who own small to medium-sized enterprises,” he explains. “My clients range across a number of sectors, including manufacturing, technology and professional services.”

The work can be split broadly into two separate areas: “The first centres on estate and succession planning using wills, trusts and lifetime gifting, together with providing related tax advice. The other area of work relates to estates and probate administration and powers of attorney. This type of work can often be quite sensitive and emotions can run extremely high, which is understandable – over the years I have managed a number of estates disputes where relations between executors and beneficiaries have become quite fractious.”

“My working relationships with clients often continue for many years through generations, which is rewarding.”

Day to day, the role is naturally very people focused. “A large proportion of my time is spent in meeting clients, their families and other professional advisers,” Tom explains. “Part of my work includes report writing, liaising and connecting the various strands of advice received so as to provide holistic and understandable solutions for clients.”

And it is the human element – forming and maintaining long-term working relationships with clients – which initially attracted Tom to this area of work: “I like meeting and understanding people, and, if it’s not trite to say so – trying to make a positive difference to them and their families. My working relationships with clients often continue for many years through generations, which is rewarding. You do really get to know people and what is important to them and occasionally I receive calls from clients asking me about issues that are entirely unrelated to the law. I take the view that the wider my understanding of their circumstances, the better informed I am for providing advice.”  

A particular highlight of Tom’s career so far reinforced the value of making sure you ‘know your subject’: “I was approached a few years ago by a beneficiary of a property left to her by will. Unfortunately, the property had been sold before the deceased died. The beneficiary had been advised by a number of other solicitors that the gift in the will simply failed. However, when the beneficiary approached me, through our discussions, I was able to find out that the deceased had in fact lost mental capacity some time before the property was sold and due to some quite rarely used legislation, the gift to the beneficiary did not lapse but instead took effect as a gift over the remaining net proceeds of sale. After a short exchange of letters with the solicitors dealing with the estate to assert the client’s rights in this case, a substantial cheque was received in satisfaction of my client’s interest.”

Assessing the future for the legal profession, Tom is keen to emphasise the need for solicitors to continue modernising: “Historically solicitors’ firms have been slow to react and move with the times, and there have been a number of new entrants to the legal market that are providing competition which we must take seriously. We have to learn to be more creative and outward facing, and ask ourselves challenging questions about the ways in which our clients want us to deliver services now and in the future. Improvements in technology year on year mean that we need to make sure we keep ahead in service delivery and pricing of our work is critical. Communicating clearly to our clients our charges and the value we are delivering for our costs is fundamental. All of these challenges are positive as they keep us sharp, focused and they reinforce that we must always look to move forward.”

While it’s important to have sound legal knowledge, becoming a successful solicitor requires a wide skill set: “You need to be focused and driven, while also having the confidence to tackle difficult and often sensitive issues. It is important to be a self-starter and have first-class interpersonal skills because if you cannot explain the issues to the client, you cannot expect they will understand them. Sadly, you will never have all of the answers all of the time – just know where to find them!”  

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