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.
- The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a general increase in will and power of attorney enquiries. Many firms have made increased use of phone calls and videoconferencing to cope with the rise in demand while maintaining safe practice. Mental assessments of clients whose capabilities are compromised are usually recorded in person by an adviser – in the wake of Covid-19, this became impossible. Where medical assessments are needed, some private medical practices are conducting doctor's reports over videoconferencing apps.
- Tax residencies have also been in the news, due to the current restrictions on travel. Civilians are having to spend additional time within a country they did not intend on staying in – possibly making them a tax-eligible resident. Chancellor Rishi Sunak wrote to the Treasury Select Committee on 20 April 2020 putting forward changes to the current legislation; the alterations would mean that days spent in the UK between 1 March and 1 June 2020 will not count towards the residency test.
- Since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been much speculation about the impact on the private client and charity sector. Some have suggested that the UK should become a tax haven to attract business post-Brexit (and a lot of wealthy individuals) – more likely is an eventual rise in income and inheritance tax, and certain tax-relief payments may be restricted.
- In 2018 legislation was passed which will force shell companies investing in UK property to list their beneficial owners from 2021. This is aimed at stopping criminality, but there's the possibility that certain publicity-shy clients will choose to invest their money by other means.
- HMRC has previously outlined its aim to process 100 prosecutions of wealthy individuals and corporations per year by 2020. Two years prior it brought just over 1,000 prosecutions against individuals alone, partly a result of the new software program 'Connect' to analyse data and spot suspicious behaviour, as well as heightened access to offshore accounts following the implementation of the Common Reporting Standard in 2018, which increases the use of data sharing between participating countries.
- Away from financial structuring, some private client lawyers are also in the business of reputation management, and the spectre of #MeToo has presented a new (and welcome) stick with which to beat those who abuse their wealth and power. Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer, may not be the best example of a loyal counsel, but his general troubleshooter role gives an idea of how a different breed of private client lawyers are called upon in times of need.
- In June 2018, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) reported that sexual harassment and misconduct claims against UK lawyers had increased by 58% since 2017. The International Bar Association (IBA) has in its own right stated that, worldwide, one-third of female lawyers have experienced sexual harassment. IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto described the insidious problem being down to “male-dominated leadership and an inherently hierarchical power structure, with lower-level employees largely dependent on superiors for advancement.” Firms have stated they are taking the necessary steps to tackle harassment in the workplace, with the hashtag #ThatsNotCool encouraging staff to report offensive language and behaviour.
- The areas of charity and private wealth have long been intertwined – a huge amount of disputes concern sums of money left in wills to charities – but the super-rich are taking this to a new level. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda formed what is now the world's largest private charity – The Gates Foundation – and over the years have given away tens of billions of dollars. The multibillionaire is also, alongside investment guru Warren Buffett, a founder of the Giving Pledge, an initiative which aims to spur philanthropic-minded billionaires to part with half of their total wealth. You may also remember how, before the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfurled, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan made the quite extraordinary pledge to donate 99% of their Facebook shares.
- 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. Many are structured as companies listed by guarantee, and don't have shareholders (which can make attracting investment difficult), but a range of legal structures exists for these enterprises to make use of, including charitable trusts, cooperatives and Community Interest Companies (profit-making enterprises that must reinvest their income for the benefit of social objectives).
- The Law Commission review on will making was initially launched in 2017. The Law Commission consulted on laws including the minimum age for making a will and whether it should be lowered from 18 to 16. Another proposal is enabling courts to dispense with current will formality requirements where it is clear what the deceased intended. Proposals aimed to take into account conditions such as dementia and new technologies.