Former IRS Associate Chief Counsel discusses the “fun stuff” of tax law
“Fun stuff” may not be the first words to come to a law student’s mind when considering the topic of tax law. But former IRS Associate Chief Counsel, Jasper L. Cummings, Jr., assured students in the Graduate Tax Program that “fun stuff” may in fact become a part of their future careers.
Cummings, the most recent contributor to UF Law’s Enrichment Speaker Series, addressed a full house with his presentation, “Doing Tax Law, Learning Tax Law, and What to Do When It Doesn’t Make Sense.”
As the title suggests, students should anticipate that tax law is something they will actively be doing, and not merely acting as a passive participant. “Doing tax law is the reason you are here,” Cummings said.
Cummings emphasized that doing tax law follows an economic perspective, from the ground up, beginning with demand. At the source of that demand are the clients. Cummings analogized that doing tax law without a client is like being a violinist without a violin. Because clients often view taxes as a barely necessary nuisance, like going to the dentist, the expectations of clients are result oriented. A lawyer’s success will depend on his or her ability to meet the client’s demand for a substantial tax reduction. Unlike other areas of practice in which a lawyer may need to provide an elaborate explanation of how he or she arrived at a legal conclusion to a law partner or judge, tax clients are result-oriented. “They’re not going to want to know how you figure this out,” Cummings said.
“Showing up is 80 percent of success,” Cummings said, quoting Woody Allen. “If you don’t read to the end of the section [of the applicable law], you did not show up.” When learning tax law, students should be prepared to start at the bottom and tackle the law starting with the codes and regulations. Students also should become familiar with the available research tools, and always be sure to have a comprehensive understanding of the facts in a given case.
“Nine times out of 10, you will need to understand the fundamentals of the issue and not just find the case law on point,” Cummings said.
Full immersion is the best way to learn tax law, and students should avoid taking the kinds of shortcuts that might be more common among undergraduate students. The facts in a tax case are just as important as they were in a law student’s first-year cases, and both students and lawyers alike must have a complete understanding of the facts in their respective cases.
“If you mess something up, it is never going to be anybody else’s problem but yours,” Cummings warned. Students should also start thinking about the specific areas of tax law in which they want to focus. “Unfortunately, you’re going to have to specialize in the tax world,” Cummings said.
As lawyers specialize, their clients also will grow to include other lawyers. And with experience, lawyers will gain so-called “walking-around knowledge,” which Cummings describes as the kind of knowledge that is principally intuitive. Tax law is a century old, and students ought to come out of school with a familiarity of the standard “vocabulary cases,” with the ultimate goal being the development of walking-around knowledge.
Because of the well-established history of tax law, there is more of a logical explanation for the rules and conclusions in tax law than there are in any other area of the law. Because many students perhaps “resist being dragged through the history of the code” – where the reason for a given rule is often buried – Cummings advised that students avoid this resistance.
“Understanding the reason for a rule makes it much easier to remember and apply,” he said.
The Supreme Court has decided more than 1,000 federal tax cases interpreting the code, and these cases should not be overlooked. Even if a case was decided in 1942, a lawyer who cites Supreme Court case as precedent places the burden on the opposing party to come up with a good enough reason for why the court hearing the case at hand should not follow the Supreme Court – a rather heavy burden to meet.
Although applying standard solutions for a client can be very satisfying work, Cummings considers the “fun stuff” to be the difficult cases that go beyond the standard solutions and solve the unique problems of the client.
Cummings also considers tax law to be the most intellectually challenging type of law. He said it took him seven years of experience that included teaching tax law to really gain an understanding of the law. “When you get your degree, you have not arrived,” Cummings said.