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. 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 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 governments to take steps towards cracking down on money laundering and tax evasion. 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. Other efforts to change the landscape include The Common Reporting Standard (CRS) which standardises accounting practice internationally. After being created in 2014 to increase the sharing of pertinent information between participating countries, it started collecting data from entities in 2017. In the UK, HMRC is using its new software program 'Connect' to analyse data and spot suspicious behaviour; it's also aiming to process 100 prosecutions of wealthy individuals and corporations per year by 2020.
- Nevertheless, 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 Skripal poisoning in the UK has increased scrutiny on Russians living in the UK, traditionally an active source of private wealth work. Perhaps the best known example is Roman Abrahamovic, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, who recently had his visa application delayed by the government; he then decided to withdraw that application. This has been followed by reports that he may sell Chelsea. Similar lukewarm treatment by the UK government may herald further exits of Russian individuals, and the business they provide to private wealth lawyers.
- Rules on how non-domiciled individuals are taxed changed in 2017. Non-dom status can provide a favourable tax bill to those born in the UK who moved abroad, and retain assets there. The government acted to ensure that those who do have non-dom status cannot have lived in the UK for more than 15 years of the last 20 and retain that privilege. There was a 23% fall in the number of people claiming non-dom status between 2015/16 and 2016/17, according to HMRC statistics.
- 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.
- 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 multi-billionaire 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. So, without being too cynical about the benefits such donations bring for these individuals' reputations, it does seem to be a growing trend, and lawyers will inevitably have a hand in it.
- As part of a wider push towards transparency in the charity sector, the Charities Act 2016 gave new powers to the Charity Commission to strengthen and increase regulation of the sector. UK charities must now declare income they receive from overseas, after the Charity Commission introduced a set of changes that will potentially uncover some fascinating information about how charities are funded. The act also broadened the scope of criminal offences which could lead to an individual's disqualification from trustee status.
- 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, co-operatives and Community Interest Companies (profit-making enterprises that must reinvest their income for the benefit of social objectives).