What Is It Like to Work as a Tax Law Attorney?
Published: Mar 03, 2020
It’s the middle of tax season, so what better time than the present to shed some light on this legal practice area? For many law students and new lawyers, tax law is an area shrouded in misconception and mystery. After all, the thought of numbers and math seeping into legal practice is an intimidating thought—isn’t that what law school is supposed to avoid? Many law students haven’t even filed their own tax returns yet, so it makes sense that a career based on solving complex tax issues can seem like an impossible leap. Not to mention, the tax code isn’t exactly a quick read—where does someone unfamiliar with it even begin?
In Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas, tax lawyers from top-ranked firms answer these questions and more. Read on for what they had to say about common tax law misconceptions, how they ended up in the practice area, what it’s like to be a junior tax law attorney, and ways law students can prepare for a career in tax.
How did you choose this practice area?
Catherine (“Cate”) Battin and Andrew (“Andy”) Roberson, Partners—McDermott Will & Emery: Tax considerations are a part of every major transaction and must be considered along with the business reasons for each transaction. We chose tax law, and particularly tax controversy, because of the opportunity not only to be subject-matter experts, but also to act as advocates for our clients and to represent their interests administratively and in court.
Rachel Kleinberg, Partner—Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP: When I started law school, I had no idea which area of law would be the best fit and was open to exploring my options. As a summer associate at Davis Polk, I tried out tax and was drawn to the ever-evolving work. I continued to practice tax law as a first-year associate and have never looked back.
Sarah E. Ralph, Partner—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP: I knew I was interested in working in a transactional practice area. Prior to law school, I worked in the nonprofit sector, where I had some exposure to trust and estate tax planning, making me aware that lawyers could focus their practice on tax planning, which I had never realized. But it was probably my first real tax project as a summer associate at Skadden that got me hooked. I worked on a private letter ruling request related to a complex cross-border restructuring, and I found the work to be a terrific combination of researching, writing, and hashing out ideas and issues with smart, thoughtful, fun colleagues.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area?
Rachel Kleinberg: Most people assume that tax lawyers need to be mathematicians and have a background in accounting or math. However, I have a bachelor’s degree in English and find that my job is primarily writing and researching. And rather than working on complicated math equations, I am generally using logic to problem-solve.
Sarah E. Ralph: I think most people don’t know what tax lawyers do and often think we just prepare tax returns. (The answer to that is no.) Our tax practice at Skadden is incredibly diverse. We have tax controversy attorneys, who are litigators focused in tax matters; international tax attorneys, who are key to cross-border transactions and organizational planning; and colleagues who work on every type of corporate transaction that includes a tax aspect.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
Rachel Kleinberg: One of the challenges with tax law is that there is not a lot of busy work, and there is a steep learning curve. Early in their careers, associates are performing substantive analysis and are involved in every aspect of a tax deal, ranging from marking up an agreement to researching issues. While this early responsibility is challenging, junior lawyers generally appreciate the opportunity to stretch themselves and work on significant aspects of complex deals.
Sarah E. Ralph: Junior attorneys in our group help our teams by doing a lot of research and writing, which offer terrific opportunities to learn about each matter. In transactional practices like tax, junior associates become familiar with various types of agreements and learn how to draft key tax provisions. They gain valuable experience in structure planning, develop the ability to spot issues and propose solutions, and gain insight into leading discussions with clients.
As a junior attorney, how did you learn the ins-and-outs of the tax code so that you could hit the ground running on your clients’ complex issues?
Rachel Kleinberg: Succeeding in tax law requires a love of learning. I took as many classes as were available to me and am always reading up on new laws as well as articles by tax scholars and practitioners. As a tax lawyer, you will always be learning substantive law, which keeps things interesting and fulfilling.
Sarah E. Ralph: I did a lot of reading, outlined my thoughts and analysis, talked them through with colleagues, and then would go back and dig into the research more if need be. Every new matter or issue is an opportunity to learn. And it’s not just junior attorneys who are frequently reading up on a new topic. The tax code is constantly changing, and clients consistently present novel issues, so I view tax as a life-long learning practice area.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Cate Battin and Andy Roberson: Those interested in practicing in the tax area should take full advantage of the tax classes offered by their law schools to gain a broad base of tax knowledge. Constitutional law courses are also very helpful for those interested in state tax, where we often make constitutional arguments in the course of litigation. Many of our attorneys also pursue LL.M. degrees in tax, either while working at a firm or before entering practice. Clerkships can also be beneficial, particularly for those interested in tax controversy.
We have also benefitted greatly from participating in networking groups, whether through a local bar association or our firm. It is very helpful to network with other practitioners to learn about new developments and common issues clients are facing and to develop solid working relationships with government attorneys.
Sarah E. Ralph: We have many amazing lawyers in our practice group who did not take any tax classes in law school, so I don’t view this as a prerequisite. Though if you are potentially interested in this area, I would highly recommend a tax class. The ones I took were very interesting! I think the best skills new tax lawyers can bring are curiosity and a desire to learn, enthusiasm, the ability to distill complex matters into plain English (both in writing and when talking to others), attention to detail, and pride in doing good work. People who take ownership of matters tend to thrive. Ask lots of questions, and view each project as an opportunity to learn.
Check out the full set of Tax Law Q&As, along with Q&As from dozens of other practice areas, in Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas. (If you are a student, you may have access to this guide any many others for free. Check with Career Services for your Vault login!)