University: University of Edinburgh
Undergraduate degree: History
A private client solicitor looks after the affairs of individual clients and trustees, planning and managing all aspects of their personal wealth, 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.
“It could have been quite a dry degree with all that jurisprudence!” quips Laura Neal, on her decision not to study law at undergraduate level. Opting to read history at the University of Edinburgh instead, Laura discovered that she wanted to be a solicitor through a more hands-on approach: “I had the opportunity to have a few weeks of work experience, both at solicitors’ firms and with two sets of barristers’ chambers. I really enjoyed the discipline of the law but much preferred the analytical to the adversarial side of it.”
“The work experience that I had done had been predominantly at private client firms,” she continues, describing what first attracted her to this area of law as she studied for her GDL and LPC at BPP University in London. After completing a vacation scheme at Forsters, Laura was offered a training contract and qualified into the firm’s private client practice in 2015. Since then, she hasn’t looked back, and conducts most of her work “for UK resident domiciled clients, advising on tax and succession issues”.
Laura explains why being a barrister never really appealed to her: “I enjoy public speaking, but it was a lot to do with the work experience. I found the work that barristers do and their core process very interesting, but I thought I might prefer being part of a team to the solitary nature of barristers’ work. I enjoy the more collaborative approach to problem solving and I thought that becoming a solicitor would suit my personal attributes better.”
In fact, this collaborative approach is one of the things that Laura enjoys most about her work as a private client solicitor. “Tax legislation changes so often because it is inherently political, which makes our job more interesting. “Even at the more junior end, you can participate in debates because it’s sometimes the case that the people who are more junior are more familiar with the rules, because they might have learnt them recently or have advised on them with a different partner.”
Such a focus on legislation means that the private client sphere can be particularly academic: “If you’re one of those people at law school who really enjoys doing research then it might be the practice area for you.”
The political nature of tax, though, comes with its own challenges. Laura highlights “the risk of changes to legislation which make the UK a less attractive place for international individuals to live, work and invest in” as one issue facing the profession at present. With widespread changes to legislation affecting the taxation of non-domiciled individuals having been implemented in April 2017, Laura adds that “it’s a very interesting time in terms of public policy and generally the way that new legislation is affecting our clients”.
Day-to-day, Laura explains, there is “lots of drafting – wills, letters of wishes, lasting powers of attorney, trust instruments and other subsidiary documents – and preparing detailed tax advice”. However, private client law is intrinsically client-focused, meaning that there is also an abundance of client facetime. “Unlike with other practice areas where you don’t get to meet with clients very often, I usually have one or two client meetings each day. If you’re drafting someone’s will, for example, you need to have a clear understanding of how their personal wealth is structured and how they relate to the rest of their family, which can often only be gleaned from face-to-face meetings.”
This mix of the technical and the personal demands a varied skill set, Laura suggests, highlighting three particularly important attributes for private client solicitors: “The first is to have an analytical mind, as lots of the work is interpreting black letter law.” Second, it is useful to have a good memory “because of the longstanding relationships with clients – you might be in a meeting and someone will say ‘oh we did this planning the other day’ and ‘the other day’ might have been seven or eight years ago!”
“Unlike with other practice areas where you don’t get to meet with clients very often, I usually have one or two client meetings each day"
Finally, it is absolutely crucial to have excellent interpersonal skills. “Much like family law, you may be advising clients at tricky personal times; there’s no escaping that much of the work that we do revolves around death,” Laura warns. “You need to have high levels of emotional intelligence.”
However, this only makes the job even more rewarding. “The real highlights for me are the personal thank yous from clients, which often mean much more than highly technical achievements,” Laura reflects. “You know that you’ve done a good job when clients seek your opinion on matters which are entirely non-legal. Building up a role as a trusted adviser is always the aim.”
She continues: “A lot of the work involves drafting entirely bespoke documents, because no two families are ever the same. Ultimately, we give personal advice – the reward feels much greater, because you’ve done a good job for the client personally, rather than the entity for which they work. I like the human element of it.”
Go in with your eyes open
Laura’s main advice for those contemplating a career as a solicitor is to do as much research as possible. “Speak to people who work in the industry, as many as you can, because then you’re really going into it with your eyes open,” she suggests. “One thing I wish I’d known is how all law firms are very different, so think about the type of firm you might want to work for – not just in terms of culture but in terms of clients and practice area. I was lucky in that I knew that I wanted to qualify as a private client lawyer so applied to firms with that offering, but if you don’t have an idea of which specialism you want to go into, do your research. Not all firms offer the same practice areas so do your homework!”