In a nutshell
You have money. You need to know how best to control it, preserve it and pass it on: enter the private client lawyer. Solicitors advise individuals, families and trusts on wealth management. Some offer additional matrimonial and small-scale commercial assistance, others focus exclusively on highly specialised tax and trusts issues, or operate predominantly in wills and probate.
Charity lawyers advise on all aspects of the activities of non-profit organisations, including the defence of legacies bequeathed to a charity in a will. These specialists need exactly the same skills and knowledge as private client lawyers, but must also have the same kind of commercial knowledge as corporate lawyers.
What lawyers do
Private client lawyers
- Draft wills in consultation with clients and facilitate their implementation after death. Probate involves the appointment of an executor and the settling of an estate. Organising a house clearance or even a funeral is not outside the scope of a lawyer's duties.
- Advise clients on the most tax-efficient and appropriate structure for holding money and assets. Lawyers must ensure their clients understand the foreign law implications of trusts held in offshore jurisdictions.
- Advise overseas clients interested in investing in the UK and banks whose overseas clients have UK interests.
- Assist clients with the very specific licensing, sales arrangements and tax planning issues related to ownership of heritage chattels (individual items or collections of cultural value or significance).
- Bring or defend litigation in relation to disputed legacies.
- Advise charities on registration, reorganisation, regulatory compliance and the implications of new legislation.
- Offer specialist trusts and investment advice.
- Advise on quasi-corporate and mainstream commercial matters, negotiate and draft contracts for sponsorship and the development of trading subsidiaries, manage property issues and handle IP concerns.
Realities of the job
- An interest in other people’s affairs is going to help. A capacity for empathy coupled with impartiality and absolute discretion are the hallmarks of a good private client lawyer. You’ll need to be able to relate to and earn the trust of your many varied clients.
- Despite not being as chaotic as other fields, the technical demands of private client work can be exacting and an academic streak goes a long way.
- A great deal of private client work is tax-based, particularly involving income and estate tax. Specialists in this area also need their corporate tax knowledge to be up to scratch as it's not unusual for the families they work for to have multimillion-dollar businesses to their names.
- The stereotype of the typical ‘country gent’ client is far from accurate: lottery wins, personal injury payouts, property portfolios, massive City salaries and successful businesses all feed the demand for legal advice.
- If you are wavering between private clients and commercial clients, charities law might offer a good balance. Charities range from small voluntary organisations to large, global behemoths.
- Your charity clients may have more worthy goals than those of your friends working for big business, but they'll need advice on many of the same issues: from how to incorporate, to supply contracts, to the duties of management and trustees.
- Charities law still conjures up images of sleepy local fund-raising efforts or, alternatively, working on a trendy project for wealthy benefactors. The wide middle ground can incorporate working with a local authority, assisting a local library or school to establish an after-school homework programme, or rewriting the constitution of a 300-year-old church school to admit female pupils. Widespread international trust in English charity law means that you could also establish a study programme in Britain for a US university or negotiate the formation of a zebra conservation charity in Tanzania.
- Since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been much speculation about the impact on the private client and charity sector. It's likely that income and inheritance tax rates will eventually be increased and certain tax relief payments may be restricted.
- The changing legislative landscape is likely to have a fairly significant impact on non-profit companies receiving EU funds, working with European organisations, or undertaking projects in Europe. Furthermore, tax relief for cross-border donations between EU countries might no longer be available for UK-based non-profits.
- Overseas clients are increasingly investing their assets into the UK, often into property, and law firms are continuing to deal with large numbers of foreign clients, many of whom come from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The topic has recently sparked controversy with campaigners lobbying for more stringent rules on shady foreign ownership of property and other assets.
- In the wake of the Panama Papers data leak in early 2016, (which revealed how the world's wealthy hide their assets in offshore tax havens), public and media pressure has forced the government to take steps towards cracking down on money laundering and tax evasion: where a tax planning scheme is in dispute, HMRC can now demand payment of the full disputed sum up front and under new plans being considered by ministers, foreign companies buying UK property could be made to disclose the identity of their owners. The Finance Bill 2016 is expected to introduce legislation ensuring any profits arising from UK land ownership, development and transactions are fully taxed.
- Despite the scandal surrounding the Panama Papers, financial arrangements relating to offshore financial centres remain important, and a group of small and specialist law firms deal with much of the related legal work. You can find them ranked in the 'Offshore' category in Chambers UK.
- The UK's ageing population is creating a growing amount of wills and probate work for private client practices. With more people preparing their own wills there has been a rise in clients seeking legal advice rather than products. This has created further work for lawyers handling contentious trusts and probate, as incorrectly prepared wills are increasingly being challenged.
- In 2015 the Treasury announced significant changes to inheritance tax rules, raising the value of assets which qualify for tax free transfers. Individuals will eventually be able to pass on assets worth up to £500,000 without paying tax on them, with this figuring rising to £1 million for married couples and civil partners.
- The government is planning to increase the overall probate fees charged on property left to relatives. Estates worth less than £50,000 will no longer be subject to a fee, while charges for estates worth more than £2 million will be increased to £20,000, as part of the proposed tier system.
- Charities are increasingly coming under pressure to comply with anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations, but organisations are concerned that increased regulation is making it difficult to contribute money to war-torn areas.
- As part of a wider push towards transparency in the charity sector, the Charities Act 2016 gives new powers to the Charity Commission, to strengthen and increase regulation of the sector. The act also broadens the scope of criminal offences which could lead to an individual's disqualification from trustee status.
- Government cutbacks in recent years have left charities under pressure to deliver services with increasingly limited funding, resulting in a number of charity mergers, like the highly publicised union between Age Concern and Help the Aged to form Age UK.
- The rise of social enterprises (commercial organisations with social or charitable, rather than simply monetary, objectives) has blurred the lines between commercial and charities law. A range of legal structures exists for these enterprises to make use of, including charitable trusts, co-operatives and Community Interest Companies (profit-making enterprises that must reinvest their income for the benefit of social objectives).