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Tax – a viable practice area in today’s legal market

Tax – a viable practice area in today’s legal market

Jonathan Ortner

An award-winning lawyer says tax law presents an exciting value proposition to other legal professionals, noting that his firm’s focus on the practice area has seen it gain a unique position in the market.

Jonathan Ortner, senior associate at Arnold Bloch Leibler’s Sydney office, recently scooped up the title of Australia’s Emerging Tax Star at the Tax Institute’s recent 2017 Tax Adviser of the Year Awards.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, following his nationwide award win, Mr Ortner shared some valuable insights into his core practice area, noting that it’s not as “dry and boring as it may seem”, and instead offers exciting prospects to other young guns.

“Every year there are a number of issues in tax law that rear their head, whether its policy discussions raised by Government or the broader parts of Australian society, or whether it is fundamental patchwork fixes that need to occur because of faults within the legislation,” Mr Ortner said.

“GST is something that is always on the cards – whether the government is going to increase the rate or not … And of course in the international space, there is the issue of BEPS, and the multinationals like Apple and whether they're paying their fair share of tax.

“So theres no one area of reform that you can pinpoint. There are constantly taxpayer alerts, rulings and court cases that come out that we need to be on top of."

Mr Ortner’s team in the Sydney office of ABL consists of four and he works closely with the eight tax lawyers in the Melbourne office. Mr Ortner said his firm’s smaller size gives it an edge over its competitors who offer services in the same space.

“When advising on a transaction, rather than having to say to the client ‘Hold on, I need to speak to my stamp duty specialist’ or ‘I need to speak to my GST specialist’, were actually in a position to advise on all of the relevant issues that the client should be aware of when theyre entering into the transaction and I think they appreciate that they don't need to speak to a number of different partners or a number of different lawyers to try and find out the answers that they require,” he said.

“It makes the transaction for them more efficient and easier to deal with.”

Mr Ortner added that this allows ABL’s tax team to go from strength-to-strength.

“We work in unison. We work as a team. I work with the Melbourne partners and we work in a collaborative way so we dont really isolate ourselves. We are a national practice,” he said.

“From our perspective in Sydney, our focus is on continuing to grow our presence in the Sydney market and a part of that means weve got to try and look at bringing on new lawyers and winning work. If you sit back, then it means youre resting and not taking initiative; and then youre in a position where you might not necessarily achieve the desired growth."

In terms of his advice to up-and-comers, Mr Ortner said while tax is often overlooked by law students and those newly admitted, he noted it presents some exciting work.

“In terms advice for those that are looking to enter the legal industry, the only way to find out if you enjoy a particular area is by working in it for a period of time. Whether you do that by taking opportunities during university to clerk, or be a paralegal for different legal firms or rotate on a graduate program. For example, that might mean being a paralegal for the property area of the law firm and then trying to move into tax and just getting an idea as to what each department does and what suits your preference,” he said.

“Corporate, for example, may involve less advisory work and more drafting and strategic negotiations. If youre not into accounting then tax law is purely advisory, which is something I personally prefer. I enjoy thinking about complex ideas, and as I said, trying to find creative solutions for clients. So thats what suits me and I think the only way that you can really find out whats suitable for you in particular is by actually getting experience in the area.

“In terms of always being put off by tax, it’s not as dry and boring as some people might think. Yes, preparing a tax return is not the most exciting thing ever, but at least in our field, and specifically at ABL, we have a number of extremely interesting clients and extremely interesting transactions that we get to work on.”

In addition, Mr Ortner said that partners in other areas of the firm recognise that his team is able to obtain the “most interesting” clients.

“I can honestly say that theyre tough clients sometimes and they demand a lot from us, but the matters themselves are fascinating and sometimes were being asked to deal with some of the biggest issues that a client might have and theyre entrusting us to be responsible and to manage their affairs and to advise them on matters that are very sensitive,” he said.

“Its nice to be an adviser and to be entrusted with that responsibility, and I take that very seriously.

“When I deal with any client, particularly individual clients, because theyre the ones who are a little bit more sensitive in this space, I make an effort to make them feel comfortable and to always be there if they need to call and ask a query to put themselves at ease. Im there and I can pick up the phone and speak to them.”

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Tax – a viable practice area in today’s legal market
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