Market leading insight for tax experts
View online issue

The evolution of the tax lawyer

printer Mail
What follows is not a tax commentary. It aspired to be one, but somewhere along the way evolved into something different. I won’t say ‘evolved into something more’, because what more is there than tax?
To give context to what follows I should say that my background is very much rooted in academia. I fell into the practice of tax law entirely by accident; but loved it all the same. It appeals to my academic core and is in a constant and challenging state of flux. What is there not to love about that?
But I am an academic; I appreciate that business is diametrically opposed to me on this point.
So what do my clients want from me? Apart from the obvious that is, which is the correct (and practical) answer to their tax conundrums.
When I moved away from City practice, where many clients were once happy to pay for the chapter and verse (or a weighty doorstop) underpinning a tax opinion, I spent some considerable time being retrained by my new colleagues. Putting aside the quips about my floral and occasionally archaic use of the English language (with a sprinkling of Latin for good measure), I was told not to spend vast amounts of time writing a lengthy and technical advice in which all options are explored with detailed pros and cons. Instead, I was to explore the options ‘behind the scenes’ and note on the file the pros and cons. Doing this in note form saved the client from having to pay for my time to write up such notes in an explanatory and detailed format; better still, it saved them from having to read it. As a consequence, the advice I sent clients became shorter, with very little background narrative and invariably starting with an executive summary that set out my recommendation. The text that followed the summary would set out the pros and cons and highlight any risks; if there were other viable options then these would be referred to. But no (or very little) case names were used, and definitely no Latin (okay, maybe just a little bit on special occasions).
It felt peculiar and, at times, a little risky to be so direct when giving tax planning advice; but clients seemed to appreciate it and kept coming back, which is as good an indicator of client satisfaction as you can get. Indeed, this approach to giving tax advice seemed popular. Increasingly (and in all areas of the law) clients are requesting a ‘no frills’ service; limit the scene setting stories and the encyclopaedic explanations. As one of my clients recently said: ‘you don’t need to prove to me that you know your specialism, I wouldn’t still be instructing you if I didn’t believe you knew what you were talking about, just tell me what the realistic options are and headline the risks for me’. The first time I heard the ‘no frills’ sentiment expressed this way, it seemed rather brusque. I don’t mind saying that I was a little bit put out. I had always felt that when advising a client on tax planning options, they needed to be fully informed; made aware of the technical and far-removed risks as well as any immediate ones. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this required me to at least doff my hat to Ramsay and Westmoreland and the GAAR, alongside commenting on any relevant TAARs. But it is now a rare piece of tax planning advice that sees a client actually requesting such level of detail.
Is it such a bad thing though? As UK tax law becomes ever more complex and voluminous, a detailed opinion that covers every conceivable tax angle of a transaction or a piece of planning will inevitably become implausible (not to mention, unreadable). A big part now of being a good tax lawyer is having the ability to take a practical and measured hand to the way we deliver our advice; balancing this alongside the need to make sure the client is sufficiently well-informed of any risks they might be taking. This balancing act is not always an easy one to perform in an area such as tax where the risks seem to be ever-increasing, and sometimes even retrospective.
So as tax lawyers (and in truth, tax advisers generally) we need to add another string to our, already heavily strung, bow: the ability to get the knowledge versus recommendation balance just right. Of course, that balance is different for every client, and it is here that I struggle to offer any sort of generic insight. All you can do is take the time to get to know each client and to make sure that you understand what they want to use your advice for, what they want to achieve and how much energy they want to expend on it. 
Issue: 1343
Categories: In brief