As an exceptional Private Client Lawyer, building strong relationships and going above and beyond for clients in any given circumstance is the norm. The start of the pandemic saw increased media reports of domestic abuse, financial problems, mental anxiety, and situations never encountered before. What once was the norm, was dramatically strained, fuelled with the added complexities created by the pandemic and lockdown measures. Both clients and private client lawyers alike were required to quickly adapt and respond to the changes presented.
In this year’s list, these Top 100 Private Client Lawyers demonstrated tenacity in advising on crypto-related issues, emergency execution of wills and breaches of child contact arrangements to name a few. As well as supporting on charitable and pro-bono cases that arose against the backdrop of the pandemic. They displayed the ever-important soft skills of a Private Client lawyer not only to ensure that they carried on ‘business as usual’ but to maintain a relationship as a trusted adviser despite the extra challenges imposed by a worldwide pandemic.
In the early stages of the pandemic, finalising wills were at the forefront of many individuals’ agenda. However, with lockdown measures and social distancing rules imposed, ensuring that wills were executed and witnessed became extremely difficult. It was only until the Wills Act 1837 was amended and temporary provisions were put in place, that video conferencing and other visual transmissions were accepted legally for the witnessing of wills.
Prior to this, Private Client lawyers had to adapt to the circumstances to ensure their clients could update or prepare emergency wills during lockdown, with some clients in entirely different jurisdictions. In one example, Josephine Howe from Ogier isolated sealed wills in letter boxes 48 hours prior to the will signing and witnessed wills through kitchen windows to ensure they adhered to social distancing requirements. Innovatively, Alex Hunt and Chris Belcher from Mills & Reeve developed the Life Questions App to ensure that front-line workers had documentation in place to protect themselves and assess whether they needed to make a will or not. The system was used over 2,000 times.
Undoubtedly, lockdown measures made in-person meetings and client contact increasingly difficult. Empathy is a prerequisite for the role of a Private Client lawyer, yet during the pandemic client care took on a new meaning. Whether it be reaching out to clients on an even more regular and interpersonal level through video calls and WhatsApp chats to reduce their anxiety or meeting for socially distanced walks to talk through issues in person. Notably, a lawyer from Vardags flew to Europe and quarantined with a client so she would be on hand to support her day and night for a prolonged period during an intense phase of litigation. In another example, Emma Nash of Fletcher Day offered her clients combined advocacy and solicitor work on a fixed fee service which not only helped clients manage their legal costs during uncertain times but in her words has also helped her to have a better relationship with her clients. Juliette Peters from Peters May made special arrangements to ensure that her home environment constituted covid-safe surroundings to enable clients to meet with her in her garden. These efforts in looking after clients and ensuring their needs were met are just some of the many reasons why these lawyers have been recognised as one of the Top 100 Private Client Lawyers.
One of the interesting findings from the submissions was that crypto has hit the mainstream. As a result of COVID-19 and market fluctuations, the crypto market has become even more appealing as UHNWs look to diversify their assets. Private Client lawyers have been involved in significant projects such as managing crypto based token exchanges and being at the forefront of crypto-asset developments. James Brockhurst of Forsters helped clients navigate the de-centralised finance space and has been involved with the structuring of new projects on Ethereum. Crypto has also entered the divorce realm with one submission citing complex family and crypto issues such as how to split digital assets and wealth generated across the span of a marriage.
One of the more shocking trends to emerge from the submissions was the rise of domestic abuse and child separation. According to the Office of National statistics, Between April and June 2020, there was a 65 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, when compared to the first three months of that year. Many lawyers helped their clients through an extremely difficult time. One submission described their client as “imprisoned at home with the person, they needed space from, often without even friends or family to escape to”. Family lawyers were required to be extremely flexible and empathetic with clients by scheduling talks at times that their client would go on their daily walks for example to ensure that their clients would be able to speak privately and freely. Lawyers also had to deal with the increase in breaches of child contact arrangements where some parents used lockdown measures as an opportunity to prevent their child from seeing their spouse.
It is no doubt that out of the pandemic, new situations never encountered before arose and throughout the submissions were examples of lawyers acting pro bono to provide their services to improve the situation of others. The cancellation of summer exams for A-level and GCSE students meant that the grading system disproportionately and negatively affected high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Suzi Sendama from Mishcon de Reya LLP acted on a pro bono basis for several students from the Social Mobility Foundation’s Aspiring Professionals programme through the A Level appeals and complaints process. Such students struggled to advocate for themselves and had little support from families and schools.
On a largely pro bono basis, Victoria Mahon de Palacios from Wedlake Bell LLP obtained charitable registration of a client’s company set up to improve the mental health of NHS workers through music. She worked on the complex application for over eight months due to the novel nature of the company's intended charitable activities. It required a lot of creativity and adaptability to set up a novel charity within the strict remits of charity law.
In New York, Joshua Rubenstein of Katten advised the Volunteers of Legal Service (a pro bono civil legal service for underserved populations in NYC) on how to run its estate planning and other clinics. The pandemic created a threat to the ability of the clinics to continue their services and Josh provided assistance to the organisation in the creation of procedures to implement remote witnessing and notarisations that complied with the governor of New York’s executive orders.
Essentially, demonstrating compassion, expertise and care is part and parcel of private client work. These submissions have highlighted how Private client lawyers were required to carry on business as usual. They also demonstrated the complexities faced against the covid backdrop and the humanistic element and skills that is pivotal to the private client role. As a result, we recognise and commend the Top 100 Private Client lawyers.
The Top 100 Private Client Lawyers 2021 is sponsored by Katten. Find out more about their private wealth practice by visiting National Chair of Private Wealth's Josh Rubenstein's profile.