We need help, so we’re hiring a lawyer
Please look at our job posting if you’re interested. International tax law. Foreign trusts, FIRPTA, expatriation, CFCs, and other assorted frivolities.
Email to a law student interested in international tax
I received an email from a third-year law student interested in international tax. I’m in Dubai and coming home next week to a mountain of work and intend to (1) be with my family; (2) be in the office working; and (3) run laps around the Rose Bowl. Nothing else until my vacation at the end of June. No time. So I emailed him, and figured I’d post my email to him here, too. Do with it what you want.
Thanks for the email. Currently I am traveling in the Middle East and won’t be back until next week. When I get back I will be up to my eyeballs in work. Time is extremely tight for me, so emails — at least until November — are a better way to do this. Emails can sneak into the seams of time and get handled that way.
LL.M in Tax
All I can tell you is what I did. I did a tax LL.M. part-time at night from University of San Diego. I started the program thinking I would burnish my resume (I was an associate at a law firm at the time) and ended when I was self-employed, after being laid off from Security Pacific Bank following its acquisition by Bank of America. I completed the degree just for the psychological benefit of finishing something I had started.
The academic exercise of the LL.M was useful to me in only one sense — it gave me a force-feeding of information so my brain could start to connect dots. International tax is exceedingly complex because it requires knowledge of a complicated area of the Internal Revenue Code as well as other areas. Almost every problem is “international plus corporate” or “international plus partnership” or “international plus individual” etc. Sometimes, there are multiple overlays of complexity: individual plus corporate operating in the international context.
You’ll notice I did not mention the complexity added when you have multiple tax jurisdictions operating in a client’s life.
Or human elements of tension in the family or the business. Or questions of immigration and nationality — where will I live and where will my children grow up? These factors are outside the Internal Revenue Code but exponentially more important.
That said, you can replicate that deep tax code knowledge. Quicker and better than the LL.M. Take the advice of Derek Sivers. http://sivers.org/kimo
A tax LL.M will get you a job. Better to aim for mastery. http://gapingvoid.com/2012/05/31/on-mastery/
I am now 30 years out of law school. In some areas I think I am there — the subject matter is almost like playing. It’s fun and deeply satisfying. In other areas, I am a neophyte. I now stay away from these things unless I am willing to become a master. Be the best, link to the rest, as Jeff Jarvis says. http://buzzmachine.com/2007/02/22/new-rule-cover-what-you-do-best-link-to-the-rest/
Law school itself
The academic exercise of going to law school had a negative value for me. I don’t use anything I learned there in my real life. Perhaps that is too harsh. There must be some information and abstract knowledge implanted deep in my brain that is useful.
But law school itself? Meh. It is a three-year hazing ritual endured by generations past, so we must inflict it on those who follow us. Useless.
Enough ranting. Let’s talk concrete action. If I took my 56 year old brain and put it into my 26 year old body, what would I do?
1. Sit down and read Rhoades and Langer from cover to cover. Then start reading BNA Portfolios one at a time. Just read. Focus as you wish — inbound or outbound, corporate or individual. Just absorb. I wouldn’t even necessarily try to understand at that stage. Just absorb.
2. Start doing. You will learn 1,000X by doing rather than reading. Don’t do this without a net, though. There are clients whose well-being is in your hands.
3. See where it goes. Don’t think you can control and enjoy your life. You can have one or the other. Not both.
Step 2 contains two items that are hard: getting projects, and getting a net.
One is the doing part. How can you “do” if you don’t have any projects? Two ways. You create clients or you go somewhere (like a job) where clients are already there and work on their projects.
The 26 year old Phil’s brain blocked the second pathway (go where the projects are, and learn) by demanding a high salary. “Don’t you know who I am? Etc.” I stunted my growth by greed and ego. My 56 year old brain would tell my 26 year old self to not make this mistake again. Be humble.
And how do you get a net? A net is a human being who knows more than you will ever know, so when you’re around that person you shut up and hang around and learn stuff.
How do you find this person? Again you can either do it freestyle or in the job context.
Either way, people call this a “mentor.” Showing up and saying “mentor me” is not the way to go. You can find endless stuff on the interwebs about this. Find a way to do this.
All I can tell you is my opinion. Consider it from your would-be mentor’s side of table. He/she is extremely busy doing stuff that is extremely interesting to him/her. He/she probably also has a family and friends. You have to dislodge something existing in that person’s life to create an opening for you.
You will have to be so extremely interesting to your mentor that you’ll be more important than your mentor’s child.
The easiest way to be extremely valuable to your would-be mentor is to create time. They can use this time to do whatever is most valuable to them. I commend John Carlton’s perspective to you on this point. Read a ton of his blog posts. http://www.john-carlton.com/
Finally, I leave you with a light-hearted but entirely and deeply important message. Heed Jeff Atwood’s admonition to embrace the suck. http://www.slideshare.net/codinghorror/how-to-stop-sucking-and-be-awesome-instead
Why young tax lawyers should learn to read job advertisements
This is yet another piece of free advice (heh) from me to young tax lawyers out there. I have been given priceless help over the years by many people. Some of them were even tax lawyers. :-) This is my small effort to return the favor to the universe.
If you are looking at a job advertisement and you need a job, I have one piece of advice for you. RTFA. Read the Fine Advertisement.
If you are looking for a job you have a pressing and immediate problem. Solving that problem by flinging yourself in front of every passing car and begging for quarters isn’t going to do the trick. And that’s precisely what sending out resumes by the boatload is like. (True confessions — I did exactly this when I was starting out and got a zillion letters back saying “. . . no thanks and we wish you success in your legal career.” In other words, KTHXBAI.)
I’ll give you a clue from the employer side of the equation. When there are instructions in the advertisement for what you should do, they have been planted there for a devious reason. We are trying to figure out if you are smart or stupid. If you don’t do what the advertisement asks you to do, you have immediately declared yourself stupid. You will not be hired. You are wasting your time and ours.
If the advertisement asks you to contact the employer by email and you call? If the advertisement asks you to attach a written statement as a PDF and you attach it as a Word document? Thanks for playing, goodbye.
Let’s talk about the bigger life lesson here. The problem with a job search mentality like this is that you thinking of yourself. You’re not thinking of the person on the receiving end of your email. What does that person need? What are the pressures on that person?
When you do work for clients you have to think about their problem from their perspective — as much as you can, anyway. You have to be patient and be willing to sit and listen — REALLY listen — to clients to understand what needs to be done. You are unlikely to solve a client’s tax problem by brute force, just as much as you are unlikely to solve your own job search problem by brute force. It requires thinking. It requires focus. Then it requires directed application of intelligence and energy.
You succeed by getting to “no” fast. You solve your clients’ problems efficiently by saying “no” to suboptimal alternatives as quickly as possible. The fastest and best way to get to “no” fast is for you to say “no” to yourself. The next best way to get to “no” fast is to have “no” thrust upon you. Related to that, read “Fail Upwards.”
Your primary purpose as a tax lawyer
This is another post for young tax lawyers. Think of it as a virtual mentoring. I was (and continue to be) lucky in knowing people who mentor me. In fact, as I write this I have scheduled a visit with a friend of mine — I need his advice. Many young tax lawyers do not have that opportunity.
If you want to get all metaphysical ‘n stuff, ask yourself why you are here, as a tax lawyer? What’s your primary purpose? The answer, I think, includes:
- Remove complexity from your clients’ lives and give them clarity in return. Tax law is the poster child for unnecessary complexity. It is difficult for a trained lawyer or accountant to understand. For civilians, it is impossible. (I count politicians in the group of people who have no f-ing clue about the tax laws they write.)
- Take uncertainty away from your clients and give them direction. There are usually a dozen ways to get something done. Clients don’t need “on the one hand, on the other hand” advice. Point your finger and say “Arise and mount your steed! We shall launch our Quest! There are fierce dragons in our path, but we shall prevail because the Forces of Good are with us.” Translation: tell clients what will work. Explain the risks. Lead them. They are grown-ups and it is their money. They deserve no less.
- Give new powers to your clients. Clients want to accomplish things. They want to expand their businesses. Make investments. Sell something. Make a gift or plan for transfers on death. They do not have the tools to bring their desires into reality. They lack the power to do things. That’s your job. Your help will give them the ability to accomplish something important to them. Not you. Them.
Explaining tax law to real people
This is another in my periodic posts for young tax lawyers. These are things that I was taught or learned by trial and error. I hope they are useful to young tax practitioners.
If you want to be a tax lawyer, you need to think in logic chains. If A, then B. B, therefore C. That is because tax law is a giant rule-based game.
Once you have parsed the rules, you need to explain your conclusion to other people. Your client is the first of these people. After all, the conclusion you reach affects the client intimately — in the wallet. Remember that your client is a lay person. You’re part of the priesthood. You must be able to explain your conclusion to the client in a way that he or she understands. No jargon. No short-hand references to Code sections.
This means two things. First, you have to be clear in your thinking. You need to understand the law thoroughly. Then you need to be able to explain it simply and clearly. I have seen to many letters and research memoranda that are obtuse to me — an experienced practitioner with a Masters degree in Tax law. That is simply unacceptable. Your job is over when the client understands what you’re doing, and why.
I will throw in another shameless plug for Bryan Garner and his seminars.
Writing well involves two skills. One is the writing part. Use simple sentences. Use short words. Make your paragraphs small so your reader can pull out the key point of that paragraph and carry that idea to the next paragraph. I think most lawyers write as if they are heaving bricks over a wall. They do not consider the reader. Your job in writing something is to require no thought whatsoever from the reader, if you can. Everything is there, self-contained.
If you’re writing for your boss (who is a tax lawyer), one great place to start is with Writing Tax Research Memos. This helps you understand what you’re doing and why. Your job is to make is as easy as possible for the reader (your boss) to understand what you have concluded.
The second skill is something I tell everyone and they all ignore me. Pay f-ing attention to the aesthetics of your document. If you write using Microsoft Word, and you have “Normal” style anywhere in the document, you’re doing it wrong. If you hit the Enter key twice to make a space between paragraphs, you’re doing it wrong. If you have a giant mishmash of fonts in your document, you’re doing it wrong.
A clean layout will guide the reader at every stage. Use plenty of headings. I use headings liberally. My goal (not always achieved) is to make my document understandable if the only thing you read is the headings.
Use styles, Grasshopper.
In his seminars, Bryan Garner will tell you about layouts, headings, numbered paragraphs, and all that stuff. He will tell you to use ragged right margins. Do not use your brain to think. Just do what he says. After you have written 10,000 pages his way, you can add your own little flourish. By then you will have developed some mastery and will be able to see whether your flourishes add or detract from your primary purpose.