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Tax & Estate Planning Law

Tax law and estate planning are remarkably interesting practice areas due to their ever-changing and highly personal nature. A person may face tax consequences if he sells stock, takes out a loan, purchases life insurance, forms a business, undertakes improvements to his home, gives his grandchildren a gift, makes a charitable donation, creates a will, or does any number of other things. A business or organization's tax obligations will vary depending upon its form, the quality and quantity of its assets, and the structure of its transactions. Because tax attorneys must regularly take into account their clients' estate planning goals and because estate planning attorneys must think about the tax ramifications of their clients' estate plans, tax law and estate planning often overlap. In fact, many attorneys who are knowledgeable in tax practice in both areas. Thus, it makes sense to consider tax law and estate planning together.

Fortunately for attorneys who work in this area, the wide variety of situations affected by tax law makes tax practice a very versatile and varied field. Tax and estate planning attorneys may work on cases involving the taxation of corporations, partnerships, and charitable organizations, pensions and retirement plans, social security benefits, estates, trusts, gifts, bonds, and more. Some may encounter international tax issues.

In general, tax and estate planning attorneys use investments, trusts, gifts, and other tax planning devices to reduce their clients' income and estate tax obligations. They may also represent their clients in judicial or administrative proceedings relating to tax obligations or estate distributions. For most attorneys who deal with tax on a regular basis, their practice is driven by the federal Internal Revenue Code (IRC) and state tax codes, along with regulations, revenue rulings, and case law. Tax and estate planning attorneys spend their time researching the impact of tax provisions, drafting and reviewing legal documents, writing letters and memorandums, reviewing files, advising clients, and conferring with other professionals, such as accountants, stockbrokers, business advisers, insurance agents, and representatives of financial institutions. The majority of tax and estate planning attorneys do not prepare tax forms; that task is typically handled by their clients' accountants. Tax and estate planning attorneys enjoy the intellectual challenge that arises from working with an extremely dynamic body of law. Additionally, they like that they are able to help their clients in concrete ways. Mark Drobny '80, who runs his own tax law and estate planning firm remarks, "People walk out of here after they've signed their estate plans with the feeling that they've done something for them and their family that they've wanted to do for a long time and have put off. They walk about with a sense of relief. I can walk home every day and say that I did something good for someone and I didn't hurt anyone in the process."

Tax attorneys advise clients on ways to minimize their tax liability during their lifetimes and to prevent problems related to taxation. They help clients comply with tax regulations, navigate audits, contest tax assessments, or reduce fees and penalties associated with the payment of taxes. Often, their work involves negotiating with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or state tax authorities. Even though much tax work is transactional, some attorneys specialize in tax litigation. These attorneys focus their practice on the representation of clients in front of the U.S. Tax Court, state tax courts, and other courts, including those of administrative agencies. Tax attorneys' clients are often businesses and organizations (including corporations, banks, start-up companies, small businesses, and non-profits), but a good number of tax attorneys advise individuals as well. Often, individuals who seek the advice of a tax attorney have considerable wealth.

Estate planning attorneys help individuals decide how to distribute their wealth in a way that will carry out their estate distribution goals after they die and minimize taxation, especially taxation arising from estate taxes. Their job may include helping clients create wills, trusts, powers of attorney, powers of appointment, and other devices for apportioning wealth, or some combination thereof. Very often, estate planning attorneys also aid in estate administration and end-of-life planning for their clients. In this role, they might identify, appraise, collect, and distribute their clients' assets after their clients' deaths or they may help their clients create advance health care directives or make arrangements for incapacity. They also aid their clients in the modification of their estate plans—and the modification of any attendant legal documents—to account for changes in their clients' finances, assets, and relationships.

Many estate planning attorneys work with their clients over a long period of time. As a result, it is not unusual for estate planning attorneys to develop close bonds with their clients and to come to know a great deal about the intimate details of their finances and personal lives. Because they advise their clients on a wide variety of issues, estate planning attorneys must be familiar with the laws governing wills, trusts, social security benefits, medical benefits, life insurance, pensions and retirement plans, real property, and probate, as well the laws that relate to taxation.

Law students who are interested in working as tax or estate planning attorneys should focus their class schedules on tax, business, and estate planning law classes and should also try to take one or more accounting courses before they graduate. McGeorge students should strongly consider completing the Tax Law or Business Law Concentration (or both), since these concentrations are designed to provide students with a solid foundation for tax practice. Students should also take advantage of opportunities to gain practical knowledge in the field of tax law. Clinics, such as the McGeorge Elder and Health Law Clinic, can hone students' counseling skills, while an externship with the IRS, California Board of Equalization, California Franchise Tax Board, or Business and Tax division of the Attorney General's Office can give students real-world experience in this area. In addition, those who sign up to participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) will receive federal tax law training from the IRS and have the opportunity to prepare personal income tax returns. Clinics, externships, and volunteer experiences like these will make applicants for positions in tax stand out from the rest of the job pool by demonstrating their interest in tax work and a knowledge base that employers will view as an asset.

Types of concentrations:

  • Charitable contributions and deferred giving
  • Estate administration
  • Estate litigation
  • Estate planning and estate tax
  • International tax planning
  • Social security
  • State and local tax
  • Tax-exempt bonds
  • Tax litigation
  • Taxation of charitable organizations
  • Taxation of corporations and partnerships
  • Taxation of pensions and retirement plans, including ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act)
  • Trusts
  • Venture capital and funds

Externships

Externships

Pacific McGeorge's Field Placement Program allows you to earn law school credit while performing supervised legal work as an extern at nearly 100 approved government agencies, courts or non-profit entities. Visit the Field Placement office on TWEN to learn about our Externship Programs or to schedule an appointment.

Clinics

Clinics offer faculty-supervised, law office settings in a variety of legal practice areas. Go to the Pacific McGeorge Legal Clinics' web pages for the current list of clinics.

Skills

Tax law and estate planning attorneys alike must take steps to keep up with changes in tax law, which occur regularly and can dramatically affect the tax implications of their clients' actions. Given the technical nature of federal and state tax codes, an attention to detail is key to the success of every good tax law or estate planning attorney. It is also important for attorneys who handle tax matters to be able to explain complicated tax concepts in relatively simple terms so that their clients can understand what they need to do to minimize their tax burdens and why. A master of laws (LL.M.) degree in Taxation is a popular way for attorneys to familiarize themselves with the intricacies of tax law, but an LL.M. is not required to practice in this area.

Additionally, some tax law and estate planning attorneys find it is helpful to have a background in business, since many represent businesses or individuals who own businesses. It is also helpful for attorneys in this area to be familiar with accounting principles. In fact, a significant number of attorneys who handle tax matters are also certified public accountants (CPAs). Some law firms even provide their tax attorneys with additional training in accounting. As in other areas of law, creative problem solving, research, and writing skills are crucial assets for tax law and estate planning attorneys. "I think the most valuable training every lawyer has to have is writing ...," says Natasha Page '97, an attorney at the California Franchise Tax Board, "and you have to hold a lot of facts together and be willing to get into a lot of definitions and very nitty gritty details." Attorneys who provide tax counsel to individuals, in particular, must have strong interpersonal skills as well.

Skills often found in tax and estate planning lawyers:

  • Attention to detail
  • Client counseling
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Interest in business
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Legal and factual research skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Precision
  • Strong analytical skills
  • Technical proficiency in tax law

Co-Curricular

Participating in any of the below-listed activities will not only offer you valuable insight into tax and estate planning law practice, but will put you at a competitive advantage in your post-graduate job search.

  • Pacific McGeorge Business & Tax Law Society
  • McGeorge Estate Planning & Trust Club
  • Serve as a volunteer tax preparer with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Volunteers complete extensive IRS training on the laws governing federal income tax and how they apply to different circumstances. This is a great way to apply your tax knowledge to real world situations. In some years, the Business and Tax Law Society has administered the VITA program on-campus. Visit http://www.vita-volunteers.org for more information.
  • Work as a summer associate or law clerk in a tax law or estate planning practice, volunteer as a law clerk for a probate judge, or do a summer internship with the IRS to gain practical experience.
  • Participate in the American Bar Association Law Student Tax Challenge, in which "two-person teams of students ... solve a cutting-edge and complex business problem that might arise in everyday tax practice." The problem is usually released in early September. Visit http://www.americanbar.org/groups/taxation/awards/law_student_tax_challenge.html for more information.
  • Attend the Sacramento Estate Planning Council's Technical Forum, which is held in January each year. The Forum gathers experts from across the country to discuss issues related to estate planning and taxation. Visit http://www.sacepc.org/technical-forum for more information.
  • Apply for the IRS Summer Legal Intern Program. To learn more, visit http://jobs.irs.gov/student/occ-law-students-recent-grads.html.
  • Apply for the IRS Chief Counsel Honors Program if interested. To learn more, visit http://jobs.irs.gov/student/occ-law-students-recent-grads.html.
  • Apply to L.L.M. programs in Taxation, if interested. New York University, Georgetown, and the University of Florida all have very highly-regarded programs, although many other law schools offer L.L.M.s in this subject as well. Golden Gate University is a good option for those who want to stay in Northern California.

Practice Settings & Clients

Practice Settings

Tax attorneys work at law firms of all sizes, for federal and state government agencies, and as in-house counsel for private corporations and other organizations. Large and mid-size law firms with business clients usually include a few lawyers with expertise in tax and/or employee benefits. Some have a separate division to handle tax matters. Boutique law firms often specialize in narrow areas of tax law, such as tax litigation or helping non-profit organizations comply with the elaborate requirements for maintaining tax-exempt status. Many estate planners work in small law offices or as solo practitioners; however, some large firms have estate planning divisions. In-house counsel and other tax attorneys who represent business associations analyze the tax consequences of their clients' transactions, from securities offerings and profit distributions to the structuring of employee retirement plans and mergers.

Consulting and accounting firms tend to focus on tax planning, controversy, financial disclosures, and the preparation of tax returns. In some situations, people who are licensed as attorneys may work in accounting or consulting firms rather than practicing law. Tax attorneys also may work in private corporations and banks, as in-house counsel. They can also be found in the federal government (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice, Tax Division, which handles criminal prosecution for evasion of federal taxes, or the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which is a federal government agency) or the state or local government (e.g., the California Franchise Tax Board or the California State Board of Equalization). Some non-profit law firms hire attorneys who provide legal counsel to, or advocate on behalf of, low-income tax payers. Other non-profit organizations have in-house legal counsel to handle their tax matters.

Tax law and estate planning is practiced everywhere, although large firms with tax and estate planning divisions tend to be located in major cities. The Internal Revenue Service Office of Chief Counsel is headquartered in Washington, D.C. but has field offices all over the country.

Clients

Tax attorneys usually represent business entities—including corporations, banks, non-profits organizations, small businesses, and start-up companies—but may also represent individuals.

Estate planners almost always represent individuals. Their clients sometimes include heirs, beneficiaries, or creditors of a deceased person.

Professional Resources

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  • Natasha Page

    Natasha Page

    Tax Counsel III, California Franchise Tax Board
    Tax law
    1997, Pacific McGeorge School of Law

    Natasha Page's legal career came about almost by accident. Through college, three years of engineering school ...

    more >
  • Mark Drobny

    Mark Drobny

    President, Drobny Law Offices Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.
    Estate Planning Law
    1980

    Mark Drobny's law school dreams of becoming a criminal defense attorney never materialized, and he couldn't be happier about it.

    more >
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