24 February 2017

By trainee solicitor Andrew Kerr

There is often very little information on private client departments and the work they do. In an industry where it is common for law firms to announce large pieces of completed work for significant clients, private client departments remain understandably quiet.

So how do these departments fit into a large commercial law firm?

The relationship between client and lawyer

At Burges Salmon, the private client department is an important part of the firm's history. Once a smaller firm focusing on agricultural disputes, Burges Salmon's knowledge was shaped by the demands of their clients. Historically this was landowners and the wealthy individuals who owned the land.

Tax planning, wills and trusts were all key aspects of this.

Now Burges Salmon is much larger and has a wide variety of clients from a vast range of industries and countries. However, an aspect of private client work means that these departments continue to exist. This is the longevity of the relationship between client and lawyer.

Burges Salmon has been acting for certain individuals through the majority of their adult life and particular families for generations. This relationship between client and lawyer is one of the most important aspects of being a private client lawyer.

In other departments it is vital that you understand a client’s business but as a private client lawyer you need to understand them. You are dealing with people who may be successful business people in their own right, but now you are dealing with issues around their family, their children, and loved ones.

Complex legal work

Another reason that Burges Salmon continues to have a thriving private client department is the complexity of the work they carry out. The Burges Salmon private client team are used to dealing with High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI), individuals who have complex business or property holdings, and people who move between countries and have assets in many jurisdictions. Our private client departments offers the service, breadth of expertise, and resources that individuals such as these may need.

The breadth point is key.

During my seat in the private client department I was able to see how lawyers shared their knowledge and experience to help each other. As a trainee I was frequently asking questions of lawyers in the department, but partners and senior lawyers sought the help and knowledge of others who had experience of certain issues.

Collaboration across the firm

Private client lawyers help with matters across the firm.

While I was in corporate, we sought the input of the private client team to advise whether a family trust had the power to sell shares in the target company.

When I was in real estate, a large transaction of farmland required some complex reorganisation of how partnership assets were held and this in turn required a review of a good proportion of the family's private affairs, from wills to employment to who owned which barn or tractor or field! Though we were not the day-to-day lawyers for this farming family, they came to us for the expertise and breadth that Burges Salmon were able to offer.

A vital aspect of a commercial law firm

Though Burges Salmon’s private client lawyers cannot easily publicise their latest and greatest work, what they do is often some of the most complex and involved work that private client lawyers can do. It is this skill and depth of knowledge which means that private client units shall continue to remain a vital aspect of commercial law firms. This is not only due to their work on matters originating in other departments, but also because of the leading breadth of knowledge and quality of service they can offer in their own right.

Burges Salmon has one of the largest private client teams in the UK. They won Legal Team of the Year – Large Firm at the STEP Private Client Awards 2015/16. 

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How does a private client team fit into a commercial law firm?

In other departments it is vital that you understand a client’s business but as a private client lawyer you need to understand them.
Andrew Kerr, Trainee Solicitor

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