1. What is Tax Law? Employee Benefits Law? Trusts and Estates Law?
Tax, employee benefits and trusts and estates practitioners all work with the tax code, and in some offices they may belong to the same practice group. But each specialty involves a different part of the tax code and different related areas of law. In addition, the day-to-day routine of the practices often differs.
Most tax lawyers have sub-specialties. For example, tax controversy specialists typically handle disputes with the IRS or state tax authorities and litigation in Tax Court or other courts. Corporate tax lawyers advise clients on merger and acquisition and other transactions, for example devising structures that will permit tax-deferred deals. International tax experts may develop plans for non-US operations, considering issues such as intellectual property ownership, manufacturing capabilities, and earnings repatriation in an effort to minimize the tax burden for a US parent corporation. Venture capital and other fund lawyers negotiate and draft partnership agreements using their knowledge of the securities and governance laws relevant to funds as well as their expertise in partnership tax law. Other niche practices include state and local tax work, tax-exempt bond work and representation of tax-exempt charitable organizations.
Like venture capital fund lawyers, employee benefits lawyers serve their clients with a tailored set of skills which includes tax. They advise clients on the requirements of ERISA, the federal statute that governs many benefit plans and overlaps with Section 401 of the Internal Revenue Code. Benefits lawyers design and draft employee and executive benefit plans such as qualified pension plans, ESOPs, 401(k) plans, profit sharing plans, and welfare benefit plans such as health, disability and life insurance. They also advise on executive compensation arrangements, deferred compensation plans and equity compensation such as stock option plans. In most firms, employee benefits practice is distinct from employment law practice; the latter generally focuses on issues such as employment discrimination and labor law compliance.
Trusts and Estates
Trusts and estates lawyers assist clients with estate planning, including the establishment of trusts and wills and lifetime transfer plans. They provide advice to trustees and personal representatives in connection with the administration of wills and trusts. They may also litigate challenged wills and trusts. A trusts and estates practitioner combines expertise in estate and gift tax law, wills, trusts and property law, and probate court practice.
2. What is the daily routine of an attorney practicing in these areas?
The day-to-day routine differs depending on subspecialty. For example, a tax controversy lawyer spends time on discovery, on drafting motions and briefs, on conferences with the government and in court. A corporate tax lawyer, a venture capital fund lawyer or an employee benefits lawyer often has a practice driven by business transactions and marked by significant time spent negotiating and drafting agreements, and researching and explaining the impact of a particular specialized provision of tax or other law on the deal at hand. A trusts and estates lawyer frequently meets with client families, as well as drafting their estate plan documents and representing them in probate court.
3. Where are Tax, Employee Benefits and Trusts and Estates Law Practiced?
- Large and midsize law firms with business practices generally include a few lawyers with tax and/or benefits expertise. Some tax groups within large law firms have tax clients, such as corporate tax directors, and tax-heavy practices such as international tax planning or controversy. Other tax groups are satellite practices that support a core practice such as a corporate transaction practice. Often, large firms in the Bay Area have a separate group dedicated to venture capital and other fund clients as well as a separate employee benefits group.
- Small and boutique law firms that focus on certain kinds of tax or benefits practice, such as tax controversy or nonprofit clients. Trusts and estates practices are frequently solo practitioners or small offices.
- Accounting firms have enormous tax practices that span planning, controversy, return preparation and preparation of the tax portion of financial disclosure documents. They serve a wide variety of clients and offer many different niches. Some Big 4 firms ask new hires to spend one or two years learning about compliance, controversy and planning work before transitioning to specialty groups. In other cases, it is possible to immediately join a specialty group.
- Government: Tax, benefits and trusts and estates attorneys give legal advice relating to examination, audit appeals and litigation at the Internal Revenue Services Office of Chief Counsel, which has offices all over the country. The Department of Justice also has a specialized tax division. Lawyers at the Treasury Department in Washington, DC design and draft regulatory and other guidance, advise on pending legislation, and meet with taxpayer groups. Tax attorneys work in similar capacities at the California Franchise Tax Board and other state tax offices. Benefits attorneys also hold staff positions at the Department of Labor and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
- In-house. The legal staffs of large corporations, foundations and universities often include tax and benefits attorneys. In the case of large corporations, tax lawyers may belong to the tax department under the CFO function instead of to the general counsels office.
4. What Courses and Academic Experiences would be helpful?
(Please note that this is not an exhaustive list)
For a Transactional and/or International Tax Practice:
For an Employee Benefits Practice:
- Employee Benefits Law (ERISA)
For Wealth Management:
Supplemental Courses: Consider supplementing with related courses depending on your interest. Possible law school classes include: Business Organizations, Employment Law, Employment Discrimination, Labor Law, Real Estate Finance, Real Estate Transactions, International Business Transactions, International Financial Law, International Economic Law, Securities Regulation, Legal Issues of Start-Up Businesses, and Venture Capital. Finally, some employers would consider graduation from an intense accounting short course such as the CAAP program offered at the business school, www.scu.edu/business/actg/caap-program.cfm, a plus.
Tax Courses: Also keep in mind that San Jose State Universitys Masters of Science in Taxation program offers numerous specialized courses which may be taken with prior permission for Santa Clara law credit, up to 6 credit hours, on a credit/no credit basis.
Outside the classroom, other valuable experiences include:
- An internship at a local firm strong in tax, benefits or trusts and estates. If unpaid, you may consider participating in the Civil & Social Justice, High Tech Law Internship Program and earn academic credit law.scu.edu/apd/civil-practice_high-tech_student-info/
- A probate court clerkship.
- Writing a seminar paper or law review note on a tax, benefits or trusts and estates subject.
- Participation in a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or other community service tax preparation program.
- Participation in the fall ABA Law Student Tax Challenge www.abanet.org/tax/lstc/home.html or other tax moot or writing competitions
5. Timelines and tips
On-campus interviews. The Big 4 firms and the IRS have interviewed on campus and/or solicited resumes in recent years. They typically interview 3Ls in the fall and 2Ls in the spring.
Demonstrated interest. Most employers want to see a genuine interest in tax, benefits or trusts and estates on your transcript. Some tax classes, however, may be offered on an every-other-year basis. This means you need to plan your courses carefully. Try to start by taking Federal Personal Income Taxation in your first 2L semester and Federal Income Taxation of Business Organizations and/or Family Wealth Management in your second 2L semester. Then you will have time for more specialized tax or related classes in your 3L year.
Do your research. One way to test whether youre interested in tax is to skim online tax news to get the flavor of the technical and political news in tax. Most tax people skim Tax Notes Today, available on LEXIS, on a daily basis. Many also read the leading academic tax blog at www.taxprof.typepad.com, which may be more accessible due to its blog format.
Experience. Any kind of real-life tax, benefits or trusts and estates experience is a plus. Consider volunteer externships, whether at an accounting firm, a law firm, or the government, as well as paid summer internships. Also consider pursuing an externship or clerkship at a court with tax expertise (such as a probate court) or a more generalist court that sees a good amount of civil litigation. The ABA law student tax challenge held each fall can also provide mock experience; contestants write memos on a topical practice problem and defend the memos before panelists acting as senior tax partners and clients.
Publications. You can get a lot of mileage out of a tax-related paper as well. Tax types have a lot of respect for painstaking analysis and academic success. Consider submitting a paper to Tax Notes Today, tax law journals, one of many practitioner publications, or the Tannenwald competition for student tax papers, which is held each summer.
LLMs. Some students pursue a one-year tax LLM degree after graduation from law school. The programs at NYU, Georgetown and Florida have the best reputation. Locally, Golden Gate University and San Jose State University offer similar Masters of Science in Taxation degrees. There are also well-regarded programs in Southern California and elsewhere. It is possible to earn a tax LLM as a day or night student. The LLM programs offer a wider array of tax employers at interview time, including prominent law firms as well as accounting firms, although many of the interviewing firms at NYU and Georgetown have practices based on the East Coast.
6. What Professional Organizations and Associations can I join to meet people and find out more?
Tax conferences and continuing education meetings happen constantly, and its easy to meet people there. Check out the American Bar Association tax section, which includes a law student group, and the Practicing Law Institute, which offers drastically reduced rates through its law student scholarship program to students who attend its conferences.
- American Bar Association Section of Taxation www.abanet.org/tax/home.html
- Santa Clara County Bar Association Tax Section taxation.calbar.ca.gov/Taxation.aspx
- Bar Association of San Francisco Taxation Section www.sfbar.org/barristers/sections_taxation.aspx
- Practicing Law Institute www.pli.edu/
Many professional organizations are available on Linkedin:
- ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law
- The American Bar Association Tax Sections Young Lawyers Forum (YLF)
- Trusts and Estates Network
- Estate Planner Legal Network
7. What job search reference resources should I check out for further information?
BIG 4. The largest tax employers that either interview on campus or collect resumes for summer and permanent tax jobs are the Big 4 accounting firms: Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC.
Law Firms. Numerous law firms with tax and benefits departments also interview on campus, but they do not always interview for tax or benefits positions. Many smaller firms, such as smaller trusts and estates practices, do not interview on campus at all. Some small firms require you to serve as an extern for some extended period of time before they will consider hiring you after graduation. Firms may post on SCU Law Jobs or at more general sites such as www.taxtalent.com. But in many cases landing a tax-related law firm job requires determined networking and a proactive effort to land informational and real interviews.
IRS. The IRS Office of Chief Counsel recruits law students for summer internships (although many are unpaid) and JDs for permanent positions. The timing of permanent hiring can be unpredictable due to budget constraints. The IRS website, www.irs.gov, and an IRS publication, Publication 4063, offer more information about landing a job with the chief counsels office.
Informational Interviews. The informational interview tool is often essential to a successful search for a tax job, particularly at a law firm. The informational interview is a meeting where you listen to the person opposite you talk about what he or she does, what he or she likes about it, what other firms do similar work, and so forth. The goal is to build a network and help yourself formulate a good idea of what kind of career you would like to build.
You can find people for an informational interview in many ways. You might look up Santa Clara graduates who practice tax, benefits or trusts and estates on Martindale-Hubbell. Or you could reach out to the representative a firm sends to the Fall On-Campus Interview Program Office or to a practitioner who participates in other Law Career Services events, such as panels, career fairs and networking receptions. Law Career Services and faculty members who practiced tax, benefits or trusts and estates may also have contacts. Try to be very clear that your ask is low coffee or a phone call with a particular person, so you can hear about his or her work.
8. Which faculty members at SCU practice(d) tax, benefits or trusts and estates law?