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August 25, 2016 Paths in Tax

Emily and Shane Kiggen’s Path to Finding Their Passion for Tax

By Matthew Sontag, Tax Manager, RSM US, LLP, McLean, VA

One of the rewards of practicing tax law is the opportunity to cross paths with colleagues who share our passion for our chosen profession, and thereby to build deeper connections.  For some, those professional connections can grow into strong personal bonds, even into lifelong partnerships.  So it was with Emily and Shane Kiggen, whose stories form the core of this issue’s Paths in Tax.

Though their paths ultimately joined in EY’s Washington National Tax practice, Emily and Shane’s origin points were quite different, sharing only their dedication to gaining a deeper understanding of their chosen profession. Their stories amply illustrate the success achieved when we recognize our own natural affinities and work hard to realize their promise.

Emily, following her love of linear analysis, jumped at the opportunity to study advanced mathematics at Southern Methodist University. While there, her interests and her major expanded to include computer science. She enjoyed writing code, but ultimately the foot-fault punctiliousness of computers began to wear. “It’s really frustrating to spend a ton of time on a program, repeatedly getting a ‘blue screen of death’ just because you missed a comma somewhere,” Emily observes, noting that not all challenges are created equal. In the end, she opted to explore alternative venues that would still use her passion for methodical thinking.

That led her to law school at George Washington, where the coverage of tax law on the Virginia bar exam pushed her through the doors into individual income tax and, in her last year in law school, she discovered a field of law that delighted her mathematical thinking. Recognizing that she needed to delve deeper into this complex field in order to succeed, she enrolled in the Tax LL.M. program at the University of San Diego. While there, she joined an EY practice group part time. That led indirectly to a full time position with the firm’s San Francisco office after graduation.

By contrast, Shane’s preferred approach is one of abstraction grounded in fact.  That led him to study history and philosophy at Vanderbilt. Law proved a natural continuation of those interests, so Shane enrolled in Boston University’s JD program immediately upon graduation.

At BU, he discovered that corporate taxation and related tax policy issues excited his passion in the same way that history and philosophy had done. He saw in each pairing a “big picture” approach that applies theory to the practical world. The close affinity between the JD and Tax LL.M. programs at BU made continuing directly into the LL.M. program a natural extension of Shane’s study. Upon graduation, Shane joined EY’s Boston office.

It’s at this point that a common thread emerges in Emily’s and Shane’s stories. That thread is their self-motivated drive to pursue in-depth knowledge relentlessly. It allowed them to supercharge their respective careers. As Shane described it:

Especially for technical practices, if you’re exploring an issue for the first time, you don’t need to know the answer right off; but if you don’t know your bearings of where you are in the Code, it can be very hard to keep up.

He immediately follows with the observation that knowledge isn’t something certain people just happen to have while all others don’t.  Instead, it is the product of hard work invested in learning, exploring, and studying. The key differentiator becomes initiative—the drive to work to develop skills and increase capabilities.

In both Shane’s and Emily’s cases, this drive came readily because they chose areas of practice that aligned with their personalities and their natural inclinations. Emily summed up the key lesson succinctly:

Be cognizant of your strengths and your interests, because if you’re wrong, you will end up doing something you’re not good at, and you won’t be happy doing it. . . . Don’t measure your decisions based on the views of others—sure, a given field can sound really exciting, but if it’s not your passion and doesn’t play to your strengths, it’ll be a bad experience.

Due to their personal passion for their field, Emily and Shane worked to develop expertise beyond that required in the normal exercise of professional competence.  They sought out specific topics and conducted self-guided deep dives, pushing themselves to truly understand not only the specific questions being presented but the broader context of those questions. Leveraging a key strength of large tax practices within major accounting firms—the ability to specialize—they pushed towards deep mastery of their topics.

They both credit this self-directed study with two related but distinct results: (1) laying the fundamental groundwork for professional excellence, and (2) “credentialing” that excellence in an objective way. 

For the first, the deep dives allowed them to achieve a high level of competence for someone with their “paper” experience. They accumulated knowledge and understanding beyond the norm through extra hard work squeezed in around the edges. Using each project as an opportunity for further self-guided exploration, they both essentially “front-loaded” their professional development. While they acknowledge that study is no substitute for experience, they definitely credit that background of knowledge developed from hard study as key to their careers.

Second, because of the expertise they each acquired through intensive study, they were able to work on a significant group of projects. As a result, each had a set of objective experiences that they could use to demonstrate to others their capabilities and their passions. Credibility in technical discourse has to be earned, and preferably supported by tangible evidence. The self-study gave Shane and Emily the breadth of understanding, and confidence, necessary to demonstrate their professional capabilities in dialog and work product.

Thanks in no small part to this extra effort, they were both offered rotations in the Washington National Tax Practice (WNT). There, they met a new set of technical challenges—and each other.

At WNT, Emily and Shane found areas of the law in which to continue their deep dives, continuing the skill-building process they had developed. Through that process, Shane found his true calling at EY. Emily found deep personal satisfaction in the work, but came to realize that she also enjoyed being an integrated part of a large team. Ultimately she decided to pursue an alternate path, to trade in her laser-focus on a specific topic (or in her case, a specific code section) across all clients for a broader topical exposure focused on the needs of a single client. She joined the in-house tax team at a Fortune 200 company.

What didn’t change for either of them was the realization that they had more in common than just overlapping areas of professional interest.  They ultimately concluded that their own, personal partnership was a permanent one, marrying in May 2014.  They welcomed their first daughter, Georgie, in May 2015.

Reflecting on the key factors of success so far, Emily summed it up as “find out what you love; be realistic—what is your skillset and what do you enjoy?” They both come back to a simple mantra: find what you enjoy and dive deeply.

Both also give strong credit to their respective LL.M. programs, while acknowledging that further academic study isn’t the right fit for everyone.  Shane points out the benefits of the advanced degree.

If you’re in law school, which can provide a very good foundation, then it depends on where you want to end up. . . . If you’re headed to a transactional law firm, coverage of the basics—corporate, partnership, international, maybe some M&A—can be enough. . . . If you have different aspirations, such as pushing deeper into a technical field, then the LL.M. can be a great chance to get the career you actually want.

They also note the real power of the Tax LL.M. as a way for attorneys to make a mid-career change. Both Shane and Emily knew solo and small-firm practitioners in their LL.M. programs who were using the tax LL.M. to move into a tax specialty practice or to otherwise reinvigorate their careers. Representing perhaps the clearest tangible expression of self-motivated technical study, the Tax LL.M. can simultaneously establish and document a high level of professional investment in a chosen field.  It proves a great springboard for attorneys to shift their focus within a field or to pursue an entirely different course.

Ultimately, although Shane and Emily started from very different places for completely different reasons, they ended up coming together professionally and personally.  Their key takeaway remains a profoundly simple observation: “You can’t be great at something without it being the right fit—so find your passion!”