THEY PERFORM an essential role in a broad range of commercial transactions, yet lawyers and legal recruiters agree that good tax lawyers are becoming an increasingly rare species.
Despite the recent slowdown in the global market and the general reduction in corporate activity, Rosemary Galic, a senior consultant at Mahlab Recruitment, says the shortage of tax lawyers is still apparent, particularly in the area of taxation litigation.
Tax is a very niche area, Galic says, and lawyers are often hesitant to narrow in on a speciality too quickly, particularly in their early years of practice.
“A lot of people are concerned that once they’ve specialised in tax, then that’s all they’re really good for, so it will be difficult to make a lateral move, or an overseas move,” she says. “Most lawyers tend to start off in a corporate, finance or litigation team, and they’re more likely to only specialise in tax after they’ve completed their rotations.”
Corrs Chambers Westgarth Partner, Jonathon Leek, agrees there seems to be a shortage of young lawyers taking up tax to begin with, however he also believes that law firms are increasingly losing experienced tax lawyers to other professions.
“I think you’ve got probably fewer people taking tax up to start with, but then also fewer people actually sticking with it,” he says. “I think there’s probably been an increasing trend over the last few years for people who have a few years experience to maybe try their hand in the investment banks, where obviously the skills are compatible.”
According to Mallesons Stephen Jacques partner Richard Snowden, the shortage of junior lawyers interested in tax law has meant that law firms are increasingly looking to accounting firms for recruitment. “The number of tax lawyers who actually come up through the ranks of law firms is fairly small, and you’d probably find that most lawyers who go into tax actually come out of the accounting firms these days,” Snowden says.
“The reason is that accounting firms tend to have very good training in the first few years in the tax basics, and [the tax practices of] law firms tend to operate on very complex issues, so probably the most efficient structure is to take on people after three or four years in the accounting firms.”
According to Snowden, the biggest challenge for those moving across from accounting firms is becoming accustomed to working in an advisory role. “The more junior people at accounting firms tend to focus more on the tax compliance areas, so there are some transitional hurdles to overcome because you’re going from a compliance training background to an almost pure consulting role,” he says.
Like Snowden, Leek sees a lot of interest from people in accounting firms who want to move across into a law firm, however he doesn’t think that this is a new trend. “Whenever we recruit externally a lot of the applications we get are from accounting firms. But that’s always been the way,” he says. “People go into the accounting firms and get a few years experience. Moving into a law firm is seen perhaps as a way of getting away from the compliance work and [moving into] the advisory work.”
While Leek has found that this crossover occurs at all levels of experience, he believes it’s easier for those who are more junior to make the transition. “I think the more senior you get in the profession, the skills become a more different between the accounting firms and the law firms, but at that junior level it’s quite transferable,” he says.
DLA Phillips Fox partner Jock McCormack says that in his experience, some of the best candidates come from the accounting firms. However, contrary to Leek’s experience, McCormack believes that those in more senior positions at accounting firms may actually find the transition to a law firm easier because they’re likely to have had more advisory experience.
“[The difficulty of the transition] will depend on the particular area the candidate has been working in the accounting firm. For those who have done a high level of advisory work, and perhaps this is more the senior ones who have been in a high level advisory role, the adjustment really isn’t that significant,” he says.
McCormack says law firms appeal to those working in accounting firms for a number of reasons. “We have much lower leverage than some of the accounting firms, a much lower partner to staff ratio, so [recruits from accounting firms] really find the greater nurturing, the greater partner contact and the greater client contact at laws firms attractive,” he says.
Though Galic believes the firm’s graduate pool is still the first port of call for law firms recruiting junior tax lawyers, she says accounting firms are often the second preference. She emphasises, however, that law firms do expect a very high standards of recruits coming from accounting firms.
“They are usually only interested in the candidates from the major consulting firms. And they have to have had a good mix of consulting and compliance experience. If you’re just been doing compliance work, you’re not as relevant to a law firm. You also have to have strong academics to make the move,” she says. “Law firms also look for a masters degree, specialising in tax. You don’t necessarily have to have completed it yet, but if you can demonstrate a commitment to specialising in tax and a general interest in it, you’ll fair best,” she says.
Galic cites better pay and broader, more diverse work as some of the drawcards for those in accounting firms wanting to move across into the law firm environment, though she says that these will need to be to be weighed against the longer working hours that law firms expect.
According to Galic, while the tax lawyer shortage is not at crisis point, law firms are taking steps to attract and retain good tax lawyers, and particularly, to try and appease young lawyers’ concerns that specialising in tax now will reduce career options later.
“In order to avoid candidates feeling like they’re going to be over-specialised, the firms are now broadening the roles as much as possible,” she says. “They’re exposing tax lawyers to a range of matters such as international tax, corporate tax and indirect tax. They’re also involving them in a variety of transactions like international acquisitions and corporate reconstructions, private equity investments, structuring funds, takeovers — a whole gamut of corporate transactions. They’re involving them more on the corporate side of the deals and not getting them to restrict themselves to one discreet area,” Galic says.
Corrs partner Craig Milner agrees thatgraduate lawyers are particularly keen to gain exposure to a broad range of commercial transactions.
“We find with our graduates that they don’t know much about tax law,” Milner says. “But when they actually come in and work with us they’re pleasantly surprised with what they’re doing. They get an insight not just into tax, but also the way in which tax interacts with other commercial transactions and they find that interesting.”