Though never a tick box exercise – and we all, of course, have different ways of work – private client work particularly requires a methodical approach in order to provide clients with a holistic and well-rounded service.
Here are our 5 top tools for the diligent trusts and estates practitioner – all equal in importance:
- Checklists – It doesn’t matter if you’re taking instructions from an executor or a testator, or the trustees of a charitable trust – make sure you have your own checklists to ensure you cover every key point. They are a useful guide but it’s not wise to be a slave to them – always think outside the box rather than restricting yourself to your checklist.
- Partner with the external professionals – Private client work increasingly involves elements from other legal disciplines and professional expertise. Practitioners will, from time to time, need to take specialist advice from external accountants, tax experts, property agents and surveyors, antique experts and so on.
A word of warning: always make sure the person providing you with specialist advice is adequately qualified, insured and regulated, to avoid any risk of a negligence claim.
- Inhouse team work – All law firms should be providing a holistic service, drawing on the range of legal expertise from among their different teams. The best private client teams don’t work in isolation and routinely take advice from the property team and from their commercial colleagues.
For example, when an estate property is required to be sold; or commercial advice in relation to a deceased’s company shares or business needs to be discussed because of tax considerations of joint ownership issue, colleagues’ specialist views will be invaluable.
- Make sure you have the best software – Implementing the right private client case management software for the efficient running of a private client department is key to providing a timely, effective and more profitable service to clients.
Cloud-based systems are the most common (reflecting the flexibility and security they offer); and these provide estates and trusts teams with all they need to manage each type of case.
Selecting the best one for your firm and its unique needs is critical. The myriad different offerings available are enough to make the average private client lawyer’s eyes glaze over, so it’s important to discuss the options with an expert IT team. If you’re a small firm, a freelance solicitor or sole practitioner, take advice from an external IT consultant before you make a final decision.
- External guidance – the law and regulations – particularly in relation to tax, which commonly arises in private client – are constantly changing. Accompanying (as well as unrelated) guidance and advice documents from various regulators and statutory bodies are also on the increase. For that reason, the prudent practitioner will always have to hand – often in digital form – key pieces of guidance. That might, for instance, be from HM Revenue & Customs, Land Registry, the Charity Commission – and lawyer organisations.
STEP Europe, for example, recently issued guidance for practitioners who need to withdraw their services from trusts and similar legal arrangements with a Russian connection following the latest sanctions against Russia imposed by the EC (on 8 April 2022). This may be relevant to those advising clients with, for instance, assets in trust in the EU which have a Russian connection, and who are being advised on those assets by firms in EU member states.
A final note of caution: it’s important to periodically review all your systems, procedures and any guidance you refer to, to ensure they are up-to-date and fit for purpose.