Experience and commonsense still count, says John Scott Moncrieff
Somewhat bizarrely, the legal profession has allowed the label “Family Law” to be hijacked by those with perhaps a rather more cynical view towards the very concept of “family”. Currently, it is those, through ante-nuptial agreements, with doubts about the viability of a future family or those, through divorce, wanting to break up the family that they have who feel the need to approach “family lawyers”. It was not always thus.
Practising solicitors perhaps feel somewhat demeaned by ever referring to themselves as “generalists”. There seems to be a compulsion towards promoting an expertise in a particular field which, in itself, invites potential clients to pick and choose, dependent upon their particular need at a particular time.
While the appointment of a lawyer to deal with a specific transaction is fine in itself, it has to be accepted that that lawyer might not be aware of the wider picture or, indeed, even that bothered about it. It should be realised, though, that everything in life must be viewed in context and, quasi-Victorian as it might seem, there is much to be gained from the widespread experience and, indeed, sheer common sense of a “professional” who has seen it all and is able to place the past, present and future of a client, along with the wider family, into an immediately appropriate context.
Sands shift, ambitions alter and dynasties diverge. Life’s map takes unanticipated twists and turns and anyone willing and able to “plan for the future” can undoubtedly benefit from the foresight and experience of a lawyer, supported by related experienced professionals in other fields such as tax. The “one-stop shop” does have its attractions, particularly for the elderly (a status achieved by most), with financial administration and planning, property transactions and annual tax compliance all being achievable under the one roof and under the general supervision of someone with a full understanding and, generally, also sympathy as to the path being trod.
Should advancing age give way to any form of mental debility, the “family solicitor” is perhaps better placed than most to “keep the show on the road” and to see the client’s wishes carried out. Built on trust, understanding and experience, the lawyer/client relationship in such circumstances is as special as it is constructive.
Irrespective of the fact that the lawyer/client relationship is a professional one, there is no doubt that, long term, a great deal more can be achieved, within a general family context, if the Lawyer becomes a friend, perhaps sometimes able to double-guess the client and certainly able to help that client towards a decision that, in the general scheme of things, will be of lasting benefit both to the client now and to his or her heirs in the future.
Much of what a traditional “family lawyer” (should I now be emboldened to have recaptured the description) can bring to the table is not exactly rocket-science. It is simply common sense, disciplined by regulation, knowledge and experience, cast within the overall context of the client’s existing family and his or her hopes for it and, indeed, its members’ own hopes and aspirations. Advisers generally cannot help a family to an acceptable degree if they do not know the “full story” or what is destined for the sequel.
An experienced lawyer (with the blinkers left in the saddle-bag) can look at everything in its totality. A “transactional” lawyer can undoubtedly carry out a specific service with expertise. However, when combined with other input from other lawyers, the final picture could be a cartoon and not a Canaletto.
“General practice” is currently designated largely as “Private Client”, which has always seemed to be somewhat exclusive. Could it be that “family solicitors”, buoyed up by an enthusiastic new generation, an encouraging number of whom are now dual-qualified in Scots and English Law, are well-placed to recapture the designation of “family lawyers”, leaving those currently operating as such to seek out a designation feasibly more appropriate to their field?
The Victorians’ “man of affairs” undoubtedly has much to offer to many and, indeed, given the healthy body of female practitioners now in the legal profession, the reality of a “woman of affairs” has much more than just a passing ring to it.
“A” lawyer can do a great job as a one-off. “My” lawyer can do a great job for life. • John Scott Moncrieff is client relations partner with Murray Beith Murray www.murraybeith.co.uk