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February 26, 2020 Young Lawyers Corner

The Young Lawyer’s Perspective on Tax Practice

By Brandon King, Baker & McKenzie LLP, Washington, DC

Young lawyers starting to practice tax in a law firm are, of course, both excited about the job and worried about the many new areas of tax law we will encounter. One of the most important concerns for us is training: we know that we will need assistance as we “learn the ropes” of our new positions, and we are eager for that assistance to help us learn how to be better tax lawyers. There are many different types of training available. It’s worth thinking about those types and how best to take advantage of them.

Most of us have already had some experience in finding guidance during our law school studies. We found professors who inspired us, and we often worked with them as researchers on their scholarship or took every course possible with them as we became better acquainted with their interests and their perspectives. In other words, we found one or two professors who served as mentors to us to whom we could turn for guidance and advice about our careers as tax lawyers. Those professors/mentors are still there and often quite willing to continue to provide guidance and mentorship to students/alumni who have moved on to a tax career. Similar mentor relationships are often possible with partners in the firm, when you work on a project with one or have an office in close proximity and find that you can talk comfortably about tax issues that arise. Colleagues are a great source of guidance and mentorship—particularly senior associates who have already been through the initial learning experience that the new lawyer is facing. They are often very understanding that young lawyers may have questions that seem too basic to ask a senior partner but for which they need some guidance regarding their next steps.

Nonetheless, mentorship doesn’t always provide the “in the weeds” training that young lawyers need. So how should a young tax lawyer ensure that she has the right kinds of opportunities for that deep dive into areas of the tax law that will help the lawyer develop technical expertise? The first, and most obvious, source is daily assignments and projects. Experience is often the best teacher in tax law, so researching, writing, and working with colleagues to solve challenging and complex tax puzzles is valuable training. Aside from day-to-day client projects, authoring an article on a specific topic can give a young tax lawyer key insight into a discrete topic. Writing articles also has two other great benefits—the opportunity to get publicity both internally and externally and the potential to make new client connections. Another great way to get in-the-weeds exposure to a specific topic is to attend a CLE session. Most law firms hold in-house CLE sessions that discuss a variety of practical tax topics (e.g., choice of forum for tax litigation, the intricacies of international tax, or ethics for young tax lawyers). Along the same lines, panels, trainings, and webinars (in-person and virtual) can be great sources for rich information and training. Speaking for myself, I always carve out 1 to 2 hours per week to attend such sessions in order to stay informed on current developments. Finally, although most young tax lawyers may think school is a thing of the past, doing an LLM program, or even just auditing a tax class, to gain more technical knowledge of the Code can be a great way to get more in-depth exposure to challenging technical questions. I still refer to some of my LLM class notes for some of the trickier points of international tax planning that are easily forgotten!

Of course, “in the weeds” technical training is only part of the equation to success for a young tax lawyer. Real “hands on” training where the young associate has a chance to take full responsibility for a project is also possible and should be encouraged. For example, taking on a pro bono project can be an excellent way for young tax lawyers to gain substantive experience and new skills they might not otherwise be able to do on a billable matter. For example, some pro bono projects may allow young lawyers to draft an appellate brief or even perform an oral argument, roles that are almost always reserved to more senior attorneys for billable client matters. Another good resource could be getting involved with a law school clinic. Clinics routinely handle tax matters for low-income individuals and are often looking for outside volunteers to help staff matters. In that setting, a young lawyer is much more likely to gain hands-on advocacy experience representing an individual before the IRS, or even in a court! Finally, young tax lawyers should take advantage of opportunities for smaller, hands-on projects that help build useful skills. For example, taking on a knowledge management project can help the lawyer learn how to handle certain types of documents, such as opinion letters or Kovel agreements.

Setting aside the technical and hands-on training, both critical components of a young tax lawyer’s skill set, young lawyers must also develop an understanding of the broader context of tax law and how various provisions of the Code fit into the “big picture.” For this “big picture” training, there are a number of possible routes. One highly valuable resource is bar associations and industry groups. For example, the ABA Section of Taxation hosts numerous in-person meetings and webinars throughout the year, giving young lawyers a chance not only to learn about the most exciting and new tax issues out there, but also to network with other attorneys and discuss these issues. These sessions can be worth their weight in gold in terms of staying connected to the broader tax community, forming valuable new connections with other practitioners, and learning about some of the toughest and most important issues in the field.

Those kinds of meetings don’t happen every day, however, which is why a young tax lawyer should take some time each day to read tax news articles and blogs. Tax Notes, Bloomberg, Law360, and other resources send daily email updates of the latest developments in tax law. A good habit is to allocate the first 20-30 minutes of the workday to reading updates in these publications. (Bonus tip—Staying informed on current developments is not only a great way to keep up with the latest tax law changes, it also impresses tax partners!) Similarly, staying abreast of legislative and regulatory updates is useful. The tax publishing services usually publish notices of proposed rulemaking and promulgated final regulations and send email alerts about them. Finally, and certainly not to be forgotten, is speaking with colleagues and peers. The tax community is just that—a community. No one knows everything, but everyone knows something about some part of tax law. Taking the time to network and speak with other lawyers within the firm and outside the firm can serve the dual benefits of staying informed about current events and learning about other lawyers’ practice areas.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to training for young tax lawyers, because the amount and type of training may vary depending on your career path. There are, however, some basic tidbits that everyone can agree on. In particular, based on an informal survey of young tax lawyers, five things in particular are recommended to maximize skills building: (1) get a broad base of experience and training across different areas of tax; (2) stay organized and catalogue training materials for future reference; (3) be proactive about taking advantage of new training opportunities (billable and non-billable); (4) be prepared for and embrace the steep learning curve (everyone has to go through it); and (5) stay up to date on pertinent legislative and regulatory developments.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done for the young tax lawyer, given that we live in the era of 2,000+ yearly billable hour requirements. So how does the young tax lawyer find time to get the training he or she needs? Three pieces of advice in particular are helpful. First, make time for training! In other words, find ways to balance billable hours and work demands with trainings. This will require patience, advance planning, and (likely) extra hours spent at work. However, using online training tools and other technology (e.g., apps and podcasts) can make this job easier. Second, always focus on the big picture. It is easy to get deep into the weeds on a particular problem fairly quickly. That means it is particularly important to take a step back to figure out the big picture concepts that are in play. Asking frequent questions, reading articles, and attending webinars can all be great ways to get more informed on the big picture. Third, taking time to step back from the daily grind of billable matter after billable matter can do wonders for helping the young tax lawyer focus on longer-term professional growth. Of course, we have to meet our hours. Beyond that, our hours are ours to use as we choose. Taking the time to take on a new pro bono matter, write an article, network with a colleague at another firm, or even start a new mentoring relationship can produce valuable long-term results, with minimal up-front costs.

At the end of the day, a young tax lawyer’s experience and training will happen both “on” and “off” the clock. Going beyond the billable hour and embracing additional ways to gain substantive skills will inevitably produce a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, and satisfied tax lawyer. Each of the above opportunities provides another avenue for young tax lawyers to explore, learn, and grow as a tax professional. When all is said and done, perhaps the most important advice for a young tax lawyer is to keep in mind that the practice of tax law is a marathon, not a sprint! It takes years of practice, dedication, and learning. So why not start today?