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One minute with... Catherine Robins

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You’ve recently retired from Pinsent Masons, more than 31 years since joining that firm. How has the tax profession changed during that time?

When I moved from London to what was then Pinsent & Co in Birmingham in 1990 it was one of the very few law firms outside London with a specialist tax practice and it was common for a corporate lawyer to negotiate the tax provisions on M&A transactions or for property lawyers to dabble in property tax. There was little understanding of tax as a specialism within a law firm (even though much of what we do as tax advisers involves interpretation of law). Nowadays tax is a much more accepted specialism in a law firm and any reasonably sized commercial law firm will have specialist corporate tax lawyers. Tax disputes has also become much more of a recognised specialism, rather than something that the corporate tax team or general litigators would dabble in.

There are also many more women in the tax profession – both in private practice but also in-house, at the bar and at HMRC. On an office move a few years ago, I found a stash of Taxation magazines from 1972 (before Tax Journal was founded). I was shocked to see lots of job adverts for ‘a qualified young man’ and the like. Although this was a long time before I started in practice, it was within my lifetime, and it brought home to me how far women have come in the tax profession since those dark days. Although, there is still definitely further to go in terms of the number of female partners in legal and accountancy firms.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in tax?

Try not to specialise in a narrow area of tax too soon, or if you do, at least try to get a basic knowledge of other taxes so that you can spot when there may be an issue which needs to be considered by another specialist. All too often, the tax you or your client think is going to be a problem is not, or is not the only, issue.

Looking back on your career, what is a key lesson you’ve learnt along the way?

When I first qualified, I fondly imagined that I would get to the stage when I knew all there was to know about a particular tax. I soon realised that even if you could get close to this, it would (and frequently does) only take one Finance Act for everything to change or one consolidation of the Taxes Acts for your familiar bedrock of section numbers to be swept away. But it is the fact that tax law changes frequently that makes tax such an interesting career.

What were some of the most memorable moments during your career?

My favourite was the corporate partner who phoned me at home at 7am having found himself about to board a plane to a completion meeting of a deal the corporate team had been working on for a number of months and having seemingly only just realised that no one had dealt with any of the tax aspects. As this was before emails, the only option was to race into the office to pick up faxed versions of the documents, but although it was a long day we did manage to get everything sorted out in time.

If you could make one change to UK tax law, what would it be?

I hate the way the numbering of schedules and section numbers has got ever more complex as large chunks of new legislation are added to existing acts. Schedule 7ZB (TCGA 1992) or even worse s 554Z21 (ITEPA 2003) just don’t seem right to me.

What have been the biggest changes in tax during your time in practice?

One of the biggest changes has been the huge increase in HMRC powers in relation to tax avoidance. Developments such as APNs, DOTAS, and the GAAR – as well as the shift in public opinion, so that the line between evasion and avoidance has become blurred with avoidance now seen by many as morally reprehensible – have meant that it would be a brave major corporate or public figure who now enters into any tax planning that could be perceived as a tax avoidance scheme.

And finally, what’s next for you?

I plan to have a complete break from tax and do something completely different – I’m just not entirely sure what yet!

Issue: 1567
Categories: One minute with