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How firms can attract the next generation of private client lawyers

I have had first-hand experience of private client’s recruitment problem. The problem itself is hardly surprising given the ongoing struggles to recruit talent across the industry, with a recent report revealing that 63% of firms expect recruitment to be their biggest obstacle to growth in 2023. For areas of the law such as private client, which may be less familiar to trainee lawyers, recruiting the next generation of talent poses a particularly acute challenge. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done.

The recruitment challenge

It’s a problem that is arguably exacerbated by the traditional route trainee lawyers take between arriving at a firm and qualifying as a solicitor. It’s not that they won’t spend any time learning about private client, it’s just that they won’t spend enough time learning about private client. After all, a trainee solicitor only spends six months in each department they have a seat in.

With probate work, for example, often requiring a grasp of the specifics of inheritance tax, capital gains tax, and income tax, in addition to understanding trusts and having the “soft skills” to deal with clients undergoing what is often an intensely challenging experience emotionally, six months is a very short apprenticeship. And because of the nature of most probate work, many trainee solicitors will have left the department long before the conclusion of the cases they are working on.

Even myself, now a dedicated standard bearer for probate and private client work, initially started in litigation, which seemed like the best avenue to explore my enjoyment of probate work through contentious probate litigation. And, at that early stage, I often found the probate side of my work fairly daunting. It wasn’t until I had spent a lot more time working in probate and, crucially, had the chance to develop my tax knowledge, that I really started to enjoy, eventually switching my primary focus to probate and private client.

How can alternative routes to qualifying help?

If a lack of time to come to grips with probate seems like a recurring theme, that’s because in my experience it has been one of the key obstacles to recruiting private client lawyers. It’s also an area where alternative routes to qualifying can make a real difference. My colleague Sophie Wallace is a perfect example of that. Unlike trainee solicitors studying for the LPC, Sophie was a CILEX student.

That meant unlike the newly qualified solicitors who had, at most, been working in probate and private client for six months, whilst also trying to learn the department’s systems, Sophie joined the team as a private client lawyer and spent the next three years qualifying. Over the course of that three years no fewer than five newly qualified solicitors rotated in and out of the team.

From a private client partner’s perspective, because of the more focused and longer-term training process, those following alternative routes such as Sophie can offer a greater return on investment. Particularly because, as important as knowledge is for a private client lawyer, experience is probably more important still. Particularly when it comes to dealing with clients.

There are other advantages to alternative routes to qualifying, particularly for smaller firms where the profit-loss margins are typically tight. Sponsoring a trainee solicitor is simply not financially viable, particularly as that solicitor may not be able to contribute as a fee earner until they have completed all of their seats. Those pursuing other routes, whether that is CILEX, CLC qualifications or the Notarial Academic Training Course, can be a better investment due to the lower cost and the faster track to fee earning.

How to spread the word?

Alternative routes might well be able to make a difference, but in practice they won’t unless more candidates are aware of them. How then can firms raise awareness and attract the next generation of talent? By increasing engagement with law students while they are still studying.

Many learners are keen to find an opportunity to take the first step of their career so will jump at the chance to train in probate and private client. The easiest way to grow this awareness is to engage with learning providers like Law Training Centre, who are eager to support their students and alumni with their careers and will happily share such opportunities within their network.

Beyond this, it is important for practitioners to advocate for a career in probate and clearly showcase why it is rewarding. Some students might find studying equity & trusts too abstract, but trainees applying it in practice often find it varied and interesting. Working with clients closely over a long period of time is also rewarding in a way few other areas of legal practice can claim to be. Increasing engagement with learning providers to give learners a glimpse of the practical side of private client work can only help to generate interest.

Written by Alexandra Gordon, a Partner at Tassell’s.

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