I have been asked to comment on the activities of tax counsel, and how one starts on this career path.
Being a tax lawyer encompasses a number of diverse activities, essentially providing advice to a
wide range of clients on how to structure businesses, as well as designing and implementing
transactions and business plans.
Clients need to know how to structure their businesses “from cradle to grave” to bear as little tax
burden as possible at each stage of the business lifecycle: whether they are in the start-up mode; in a
growth phase; in a mature, profitable period; or when the business is winding down. As tax is the
single biggest expense borne by many businesses, a little bit of planning can go a long way. There
are also issues for the owners themselves, to create operational tax efficiencies, in selling or
financing their businesses, or in passing businesses on to family members or others when they wish
to retire. All this can be planned for in an orderly, predicable manner.
Despite the references to planning and predictability, there is plenty of room for creativity in tax.
The best analogy I can make, however, is that tax planning is often like doing a big domino
arrangement. You line up all the dominoes, and then just knock over the first one. The creativity is
in patterning the dominoes, ensuring they fall according to plan.
For the most part, tax law is a “clean practice” allowing for a proper work/life balance. To put it in
perspective, it is unlikely you will ever be called in the middle of the night by a client in custody.
You can plan for special events with a high degree of confidence, and take long, restful vacations if
you can get clients to line up their dominoes properly.
In my experience, more so than some other areas of law, tax requires a greater amount of reading to
keep up with legislative and administrative changes. While many would not make this distinction,
believing generally that tax lawyers are essentially paper-intensive solicitors, please note that there
are also tax litigators. These people combine a thorough knowledge of tax principles with extremely
strong advocacy skills, and the litigation invariably touches on interesting business facts, and often
on constitutional matters.
In this practice area, one will get to know and work with many different business people, in our
community, and elsewhere. Tax considerations are pivotal to many business decisions, and can make
or break a deal. Clients place a tremendous amount of trust in their counsel, and are truly
appreciative of your services.
There are plenty of reasons to be bullish about the opportunities for lawyers interested in this area of
practice. Tax law has always been considered a matter of some complexity, but it is amazing the
number of lawyers who avoid learning even the most commonplace elements of it. Many have an
aversion to it. But without including some thought to tax issues, a lawyer has truly not provided a
complete, seamless solution to a business problem. So the need is there.
A business and tax affairs get more complex, opportunities should continue to grow. While there is
always the possibility that the federal government could create a flat tax, or otherwise greatly
simplify the tax laws, that is not expected anytime soon.
To be a good tax counsel, you first and foremost have to start with being a good counsel. Most tax
issues involve assessment of the tax effect of implementing some other business process or decision.
The more you understand the business, the better the assessment will be. A good general education
will serve a person well. That also applies to your articles.
Beyond a few obvious choices, it is tough to single out specific courses that would help one prepare
for this career. As far as the “obvious” ones, taking courses in tax, business associations and
commercial transactions will give a flavour to determine whether it is truly an area you wish to
pursue. If you want to become a tax litigator, courses and competitions to hone your advocacy skills
is another outlet to explore.
The cornerstone of most large law firms is their corporate/commercial practice. In simple terms,
these firms will not be hard to find. You may find it worthwhile ask around among people in the
business community to get a sense of which firms have a strong reputation, in which practice area.
Tax sections are often recognized internally as adjunct to the overall corporate practice.
Another alternative, especially for those interested in litigation, would be to clerk at the Tax
Court of Canada or one of the other courts, as part of your articles. When you start articling, try
to establish a relationship with an experienced mentor who will take an interest in your career
and provide you with the opportunity to become involved in various types of transactions. If
you are clearly interested in tax, it makes sense to declare that intention, and seek a mentor in
that area. Work hard and learn as much as you can. Good luck!