27 May 2021

Unpacking the seismic shifts in private client work

This article was originally published by Jerome Doraisamy for Lawyers Weekly (27 May 2021).

Australia is on the cusp of the “greatest shift in intergenerational wealth” in its history, say two partners, and those doing private client work must be prepared.

How Australia handles succession issues in the coming decade is going to have a “profound impact” on the nation’s economy and society, according to Bartier Perry partners Chris Tsovolos and Alicia Huppatz (who recently joined the firm from Madison Marcus).

“Given the average family business has a $12 million turnover and 37 staff, the mishandling of just a fraction of those handovers can not only lead to significant financial loss for numerous families, but also reverberate to the wider economy,” the pair said.

“It’s a tremendously exciting time to be working in the Private Client space, because far from being some mysterious or dusty area of the law, you are on the crest of a very large and very fast-moving demographic wave.”

Trends

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Mr Tsovolos and Ms Huppatz said there are two broad trends currently at play: firstly, that the age of coronavirus has given clients an “all too rare” window to take stock of their situations.

“Those involved with family business became preoccupied about the future direction or succession of their businesses. With over 80 per cent of family business owners looking to exit in the next decade, Australia is facing an estimated $3.5 trillion transfer of wealth,” they explained.

“The uncertainty the early days of lockdowns and the like brought on business has also seen more conversations about succession or planning transitions, which is a good thing. It reminded many, particularly those over 50, of their mortality, so Wills, Estate planning and Trusts suddenly take a greater importance.”

Secondly, the pair continued, the pandemic has “either amplified or exposed” stress points for many individuals and businesses, which can and do have significant flow-on effects for family owned-operations.

“We’re seeing an increase in matters where clients are still largely uncertain as to what they wish to do and as a result, issues that need to be addressed are being put on the back-burner or instructions are being changed, often at the last minute,” Mr Tsovolos and Ms Huppatz outlined.

“Faced with the uncertainty and the challenges brought about by the pandemic, people were understandably fearful. They began to take stock of their lives and the direction in which their lives were heading.

“During this time of self-assessment, people realised that there were many aspects of their lives they were unhappy with. Some realised they were ultimately unhappy in their intimate relationships, being forced into 24/7 lockdown with their spouse being the catalyst for this realisation.”

Pertinent issues

In the face of such trends and given the emotional and stressful nature of transitions it is clear, they proclaimed, that clients are seeking integrated and holistic solutions.

“It’s not always easy handing over a business you’ve spent your entire life building. It’s not easy being a grandchild who is bumping up against their parents as to who will take over the business or how the business will ultimately be run,” Mr Tsovolos and Ms Huppatz noted.

“So, we’re finding clients don’t want lawyers who ‘dabble’ in the area but rather, teams focused solely in this space where they can tap into a whole range of inter-connected skills from tax planning to trusts to divorce.”

How lawyers must respond

When asked how best those practising in this space can respond and serve their clients, the pair said that discretion is going to be of the utmost importance.

“You are often being told or seeing information from clients that even their close friends or family will be unaware of. You will never see us name a client or talk publicly about a specific matter we are working on,” they explained.

“Then there is the need to combine black letter law with empathy and sensitivity. The use of a wrong word or phrase in a draft legal agreement could see a highly emotive situation reignite.”

Moreover, Mr Tsovolos and Ms Huppatz added, private client work is not an area of law where one can simply fall back on advising clients of the relevant law.

“Often, you have to tell them off the metaphorical ledge, engage with them in some reality testing and make sure their emotions don’t sabotage the best outcome for them,” they said.
“If you’re a crash-through type of personality, it’s probably not the right area of law for you. Conversely, we need to ensure our own private client legal team is well cared for, given some of the complex and emotionally challenging situations they’re frequently managing.”

An exciting area of legal practice

All things considered, however, Mr Tsovolos and Ms Huppatz feel strongly that private client work is as stimulating and rewarding as ever.

“No day is the same and every day brings new challenges. Also given the breadth of businesses we work with and the sheer size of the shift in intergenerational wealth to come, the commitment, knowledge and agility required to tailor solutions that fit both the legal, the business and the emotional means as advisors we have to be critical, broad empathetic thinkers,” they espoused.

“It’s a creative process that is exciting, particularly when you consider the longevity and impact of decisions we are guiding.”

While there are challenges, they mused, “much of our day-to-day work involves helping people or families change their lives for the better through a change of personal circumstances, succession plan or effective planning that puts them on firmer financial footing”.

“There is immense professional satisfaction in doing that. Even if we can’t tell anyone about it!” they said.