University: University of Oxford
Tax work for private clients typically involves advising ultra-high net worth individuals, families and financial institutions on managing their assets in a tax-efficient way. There is often an international element, while work may also involve complex trusts, wills, succession planning and immigration matters.
Finding a job you truly enjoy is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Having studied theology at university, Sarah Wray’s interest in private client law stemmed from the equity module she completed during her Graduate Diploma in Law and the private client elective on the Legal Practice Course (LPC). “I loved these modules so naturally looked for firms specialising in private client, which is how I found Charles Russell Speechlys (CRS),” Sarah explains.
With a year between finishing the LPC and starting her training contract, Sarah worked as a paralegal in the firm’s private client team where her love for this type of work grew even more – “I knew this area of law was my natural home,” she says.
But what drew Sarah to the profession to begin with? “I hate public speaking so that ruled out becoming a barrister pretty quickly,” she laughs. “I was drawn more to the idea of being a solicitor, working in a team, having that support and scope for collaboration.” It was also the opportunity to have “direct contact with the clients and to build long-lasting relationships” that made the decision an easy one for Sarah.
As a senior associate in CRS’ private client team, Sarah now advises UK and international clients on matters relating to UK tax, trusts and succession planning.
Variety of work
With a huge range of work on offer in this practice area, Sarah gives a glimpse into the specificities of the job: “I tend to advise landed estates in the UK. These come in all shapes and sizes from the traditional Downton Abbey-type rural estates to city estates, particularly in London.
Sarah enjoys the breadth of work for landed estates. For example, “Often landed estate clients might own paintings and other chattels of pre-eminent and national importance. There’s an exemption from inheritance tax that you can get if you open your house to the public so they can come to see these items. Although the initial focus might be on the tax implications, clients must also be advised on the practical implications of opening their home, including any health and safety issues they need to consider, whether it might constitute a planning charge of use and whether the client can charge visitors.” Work such as this allows Sarah to liaise with colleagues across a variety of teams, including those in Guildford and Cheltenham; Sarah spends a week each month working from the firm’s Cheltenham office.
Sarah is also currently providing a client with “inheritance tax advice on setting up farming partnerships and the kind of relief they can get as a business,” as well as making an application to the court to expand the lifespan of a trust, and working on wills and drafting trusts to ensure that assets are protected for the next generation of beneficiaries.
"These estates are really embedded in their local communities so it’s also about protecting an estate that has potentially been a key part of the local community and landscape for hundreds of years"
The history and legacy of these estates, and the importance of preserving that, is one of the many reasons why Sarah enjoys her work so much. “Some of my clients have estates that have been in the family for 500 years, so they have a strong sense of guardianship. These estates are really embedded in their local communities so it’s also about protecting an estate that has potentially been a key part of the local community and landscape for hundreds of years. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is becoming a huge theme in the modern world, but it’s something that landed estates have embraced for years.”
As you can see, there’s always something different to work on which makes choosing one highlight from her time as a private client lawyer very tricky, especially when there are so many “amazing moments”. Sarah ponders this before referring back to one of the main aspects that drew her to the profession in the first place: “Now that I’m more than five years qualified, the clients ring me directly because I’m their primary point of contact at the firm.” Sarah had aspired to be a trusted adviser to clients and sees the personal relationships she’s built up over the years and the level of trust her clients have in her as one of her career high points. “It feels really good when you wake up in the morning knowing that if your client has a problem, it will be you that they ring to help them solve it.”
However, this isn’t the only thing that Sarah enjoys about her life working on landed estates. There are so many opportunities to collaborate and work as a team because the estates have a big board of professional advisers, including accountants, life insurance brokers, investment managers and the lawyers. “I really enjoy working together with people in other disciplines to make sure that our client is receiving the absolute best and joined up advice.”
It’s not all rainbows and roses though. “As a private client lawyer, we worry about anti-money laundering so spend lots of time doing due diligence and billing – this administrative side of the job is probably the aspect I least enjoy. However, I wouldn’t change my job. I don’t think any job is perfect but this one is near enough for me; it’s got a wonderful mix of being intellectually challenging each day, as well as really fulfilling due to the personal connections you build.”
Challenges in the law
Looking at the challenges private client lawyers are facing at the moment, Sarah is keen to emphasise the “post-Brexit impact on farming for rural estates” before adding “my firm in particular focuses on private capital – wealth that isn’t held by public bodies but instead by private individuals who are seeking to invest – and I think we’re going to see lots more of that over the next 10 years, particularly as a response to a time of high inflation”.
There’s also a “big hole” in the national finances which Sarah points out is a “matter of concern” for her clients in terms of whether the taxes will increase or change completely – “for example, much like when they discussed introducing a wealth tax a few years ago”.
Moving away from private client and looking at issues facing the profession more generally, Sarah brings up the ever-pressing concerns surrounding automation and the impact this might have on legal jobs. While this doesn’t particularly impact Sarah and her work “because much of my private client work is too complex and specialised to be automated”, she’s aware of the ongoing worries that developments in AI are causing lawyers in other areas. Considering the impact it might have, Sarah says: “I hope it will help the profession to evolve and become more efficient.”
Authenticity is key
While competing with robots is not on the cards just yet, the competition for jobs in the legal world is still high. As such, Sarah shares some of her advice to help aspiring lawyers succeed in their applications and beyond.
“Attention to detail and having an analytical brain” are two key skills required. On top of this, it’s very important to have a “personal touch”, particularly for private clients: “People don’t want the corporate suits, brash type of lawyer. They want someone whom they can trust, have a conversation with and feel at ease.”
For those interested in a career in private client, Sarah urges candidates to conduct thorough research, “and be genuine and authentic because personality is so important to this practice area”. She adds: “If you get an opportunity to work in your area of choice at any point, show enthusiasm for the work too.”
In addition, it’s certainly not the end of the road for candidates who’ve not managed to secure any specific practice area experience prior to completing training contract applications. Before Sarah joined CRS, she’d had experience working at a criminal law firm and was also an avid volunteer having worked as an appropriate adult in a police station for some time. “These experiences are the types of thing that show you have a human interest, as well as the skills required to deal with clients on an interpersonal level day to day.” The clients that Sarah works with can be quite demanding, sometimes have odd requests and can often be quite emotional because of the type of matters at hand so “showing that you can deal with people in a range of situations is a really strong skill to be able to demonstrate.”