JD Curriculum – Electives: Taxation
Most students are aware of at least some of the tax laws imposed by the federal and state governments, but few know of the practice opportunities available or even what a tax attorney does. Even if you are sure that you will not become a tax attorney, the tax laws will affect some area of your practice.
Those who choose to practice tax face many choices. Like any other area of the law, there are transactional attorneys (those who plan and negotiate personal and business tax “deals”) and tax litigators (those who fight the IRS and state tax agencies on behalf of their clients). There are far more of the former, while the latter tends to fall to small, boutique firms.
Tax attorneys also find themselves concentrating in one of a few broad categories of tax practice:
- Estate planning; or
Those broad categories ignore a great deal of detail but help to give a general idea of the types of practice. For example, a new tax attorney might describe her practice as one dealing with transactional business tax issues. She might be involved in forming new business entities for entrepreneurs or advising investors in a real estate deal about how the purchase of a new high-rise office complex might affect their taxes for next year. Depending on the size of her practice, she may be involved with negotiating the purchase or merger of another business.
Another tax attorney might describe himself as an estate planner. He would be involved with clients who wanted wills or trusts prepared with a view towards minimizing the federal and state taxes involved with transferring property.
Depending on the client, he might also be involved with business tax matters, e.g. the client might own a small business that would be transferred or sold.
A third attorney might be involved with international tax litigation, possibly in connection with a multinational group of corporations whose US parent is buying raw materials from a foreign subsidiary, or, depending on his language skills, he may be assisting foreign business owners involved in a tax dispute in the US.
For a practitioner in tax, the requisite core of knowledge consists of approximately 12 areas:
- Individual income tax;
- Corporate tax;
- Corporate reorganizations/consolidations;
- S Corporation tax;
- Partnership tax;
- Estate and gift tax;
- Estate planning (including generation skipping tax);
- Pensions and profit sharing;
- Property transactions (like-kind exchanges, § 1231, basis issues);
- Fiduciary income tax;
- Proceedings before the IRS and Tax litigation; and
- International tax.
Obviously, no JD program offers all of these courses. Currently, 29 law schools offer an LL.M. in taxation, and these programs offer interested students the opportunity to gain a world of perspective in a year’s time. For any lawyer, Personal Income Tax is strongly recommended. As mentioned above, nearly every area of law may deal with money, whether as the subject of the representation or as the remedy.
For those interested in business, Business Associations and Business Entities Tax should be taken. These courses provide the background and analytical tools necessary to understand basic business transactions, and also prepare students for more advanced coursework.
Finally, while it used to be assumed that any lawyer who graduated from law school could draft simple estate planning documents, the laws (both tax and non-tax) have become so complicated that serious malpractice traps await the non-specialist. If your practice might include advising clients with estate planning issues, the two-class combination Wills, Trusts and Estates followed by Estate Planning is a must.
One frequent question that many students ask when becoming interested in the area is: “Do I need to get an LL.M.?” The answer right now is no. Of course, having an advanced degree can never hurt, and the LL.M. in tax marks someone as a tax specialist. More frequently, firms are looking for those with either (1) an LL.M. in tax or (2) equivalent experience. Additionally, many firms (and the government) will pay for, or at least contribute towards, the tuition for an LL.M. In the meantime (and in preparation for the job that will pay the tuition bill), you can select courses to show that you are serious about tax. Unfortunately (from the perspective of maximizing your elective choices during your second and third years of law school), the tax classes are lined up in series. This means that you must take Personal Tax before you take Business Entities Tax, which you must take before you take any of the advanced tax courses such as Business Planning. This in turn means that if you might consider tax as a career, you will be best served by taking Personal Tax in the fall of your second year, followed by Business Entities Tax in the spring. You should also consider taking the two-class combination Wills, Trusts and Estates followed by Estate Planning.
Other business classes, such as Debtor/Creditor and Mergers and Acquisitions, are recommended. Each of these classes touches on tax issues and helps students place the tax concepts we study into the larger perspective of the business world. Students should also consider other related courses, including Family Law, Real Estate Transactions, Non-Profit Law & Management, Bankruptcy, or Antitrust. Issues arising from concepts covered in these courses may have significant tax implications, and the fact is that tax clients frequently find themselves engaging in these types of transactions. Having at least a minimal knowledge of these areas makes the tax practitioner that much more versatile.
- Personal Income Tax
- Wills, Trusts and Estates
- Business Associations
- Business Entities Tax
- Estate Planning
- Debtor Creditor
- Technology Transfer Tax
- Mergers and Acquisitions
- Family Law
- Real Estate
- Securities Regulation
- Business Planning
- Non-Profit Law & Management
Related Upper-Level Writing Courses
- Business Planning