Practice Area Insights: Tax

Published: Mar 19, 2024

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In larger firms, tax attorneys generally divide into one of two areas: transactional tax and tax controversy. Transactional tax attorneys counsel clients on tax issues that may arise in M&A and other transactions and advise on how to structure entities and transactions so as to lessen tax burdens. Tax controversy attorneys advise clients involved in audits and litigation involving tax issues. Tax attorneys often will earn an LL.M. in tax either immediately after law school or after a few years of practice. The work can often be deadline intensive, as tax lawyers are often called upon near the end of a transaction. Tax lawyers must keep up with complex and ever-changing laws and regulations at the federal and state levels that affect their work and generally do not have a tremendous amount of client interaction.

In our 2023 edition of Practice Perspectives: Vault Law's Guide to Legal Practice Areas, attorneys from law firms with top-ranked Tax practices share insights about their practice, including what a typical day is like and what training they recommend for interested jobseekers. Keep reading for their insights!

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

Elizabeth Lu, Partner—McDermott: I typically spend a few hours on client calls learning about the issues they are facing, and providing advice. I also have internal calls with other USIT attorneys to discuss technical issues. I also spend a fair amount of time researching legal issues and drafting tax analyses.

Kristen Winckler, Partner—Ropes & Gray: I spend most days analyzing tax issues that have come up on transactions, talking with clients about tax structuring questions that arise in fund formations and operations, and meeting with attorneys to discuss progress and questions. I also spend a lot of time on associate training, DEI initiatives at the firm, and recruiting.

Isaac Wheeler, Partner—Sullivan & Cromwell
I typically break down our tax practice into three categories. First, there is the transactional side, where the work stems from a deal where usually tax is not the primary business driver (even if tax is an instrumental piece). Second, there is the advisory side, where the relationship with the client extends beyond a particular transaction. Lastly, there is controversy—helping clients through audits, including litigation if it comes to that. A typical day involves work on all three types of deals, and in all cases the work involves researching the law, discussing tricky problems with my colleagues, and explaining our conclusions to our clients. There is also negotiating, writing, and reviewing documents.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

Elizabeth Lu: In addition to taking classes in individual, corporate, international, and partnership tax, I recommend taking one or two financial accounting or tax accounting courses.

Kristen Winckler: I recommend that law students take federal income tax and partnership, corporate, and international tax, if possible. A corporate transactional class would also be good to take to gain an understanding of how business transactions work. A tax attorney needs to understand the economics and commercial arrangements of a deal in order to properly structure the tax aspects.

Isaac Wheeler: I always recommend taking classes and seeking out experiences that you find interesting. I don’t think that there is a single path to tax, so there is no need to focus on anything in particular. That said, I would suggest trying tax classes in law school because I found that tax classes correlate to tax practice much better than other classes correlate to the other practice groups. So, if you like tax classes, there is a good chance you will like being a tax lawyer. As far as outside of law school, I think the same thing applies—if it interests you, you should pursue it.