Tax attorneys help clients navigate the highly technical and complex statutes that make up tax law. Because of the different levels of tax law — federal, state and municipal — and the wide range of activities that are taxed, tax attorneys have great variety in their practices.
Those unfamiliar with tax law frequently confuse the field with tax accounting, and assume that tax lawyers, like tax accountants, spend much of their professional life completing tax returns and making tax calculations. As a result, a common misunderstanding is that, in order to practice tax law, an individual must be "good at numbers" and must enjoy "working with numbers." This is generally inaccurate and, although some lawyers do indeed complete tax returns and engage in tax calculations, this is true only of a small minority of attorneys, and most tax attorneys rely on accountants to perform those functions.
Rather, the practice of tax law has two major components; namely, a tax planning component and a tax litigation component ("litigation" being used in a broad sense here to include the handling of administrative disputes as well as those in court). As to the tax planning component, a tax lawyer works with clients, or other attorneys, in structuring transactions and other legal actions in a manner that will legitimately minimize the client's tax obligations. As to the tax litigation component, a tax lawyer represents his or her client (whether an individual or a business) in dealing with the tax authorities, such as the Internal Revenue Service, in controversies involving the application of tax laws and regulations to the client's tax returns.
The roles performed by a tax lawyer, therefore, are not that different from most other lawyers. The big difference, of course, is that the planning or litigation engaged in by a tax lawyer involves the application of federal or state tax laws and rules, which are lengthy, intricate and ambiguous, and which are constantly being changed by the legislature. As a result, many tax lawyers state that they enjoy their practice because no two tax problems are hardly ever the same, requiring even an experienced practitioner to "hit the books" in order to keep on top of his or her field. In short, although tax law touches on many aspects of human activity, it is a highly "intellectual" field, and a student planning to enter this field should enjoy learning and working with difficult and complicated rules and applying these rules to an infinite variety of business, financial and other legal transactions. The student should also enjoy explaining complex issues to others, orally and in writing, and persuading others of the correctness of his or her interpretations.
Because the tax law is so lengthy and difficult, and is so subject to frequent change, the Law School's tax curriculum is not intended to teach a student a fixed body of tax rules. Instead, the curriculum will introduce students to broad tax concepts and give students experience in working with those concepts, in finding the rules applicable thereto, and in applying those concepts and rules to common legal transactions and events.
Some Additional Suggested Courses*
- An Advanced Legal Writing course
- Accounting and Law
- Administrative Law
- Advising Private Business Owners
- Business Organizations II
- Corporate Finance Law
- L&CP: Taxation of Mergers and Acquisitions
- L&CP: Research and Administrative Issues in Taxation
- L&CP: Tax Policy
- Selected Problems in Estate Planning: Financial Planning and Asset Management
* Be sure to include the required courses for graduation and diploma privilege as well.
An externship is a valuable experience and a good addition to the curriculum. Externships are available at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and at the IRS's Milwaukee office, among other locations.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
A student who is involved in student activities and organizations is often a strong job candidate. Employers look for students who show leadership, public service, and community involvement. One student organization that deals with tax law issues is the Business and Tax Law Association (also known as BATLAW).
Tax Law Faculty
Here are some of the faculty who teach in this subject area: