Such attitudes prevent corporate lawyers from being the best they can be, opines Ong Ken Loon.
“How can you stand out in the crowded corporate law field?” It’s surprising that Ong Ken Loon has a ready answer to this question, since she’s a tax law specialist. But it starts to make sense when Ms Ong, who heads Drew & Napier’s Tax & Private Client Services arm, explains her answer, which is based on nearly two decades of life in practice.
“Tax lawyers are often roped into a transaction only when someone suddenly asks about its tax implications after the transaction structure is finalised,” she explains. “As the decisions taken up till then often fail to take into account tax rules and objectives, when we come in, we might change the approach entirely. An understanding of tax rules and objectives can give corporate lawyers an edge by making them more mindful of pitfalls and blind spots, and to pull in a tax lawyer at the appropriate juncture.”
Such an understanding would also ensure that the firm as a whole offers seamless and integrated advice to clients, instead of disjointed responses from different departments.
Over her years in practice, Ms Ong has seen the incoherence for herself and says that ultimately, the furious backpedaling the corporate lawyers have to do once the tax risks are highlighted just leads to unhappy clients. “To avoid this situation, at Drew, we educate the corporate associates to be able to identify major tax issues and flag them for discussion early on.”
Despite the increasing importance of understanding tax issues, attitudes towards tax law have changed little over the years. Back when she told her peers that she was going to specialise in the practice, they would say dryly, “Isn’t that for accountants?” Her associates today report similar attitudes. “Keeping your head in the sand about tax issues really doesn’t make sense in this day and age.”
Especially when there are opportunities to understand tax issues from a corporate lawyer’s perspective. The first of these is Taking on Tax As A Young Corporate Lawyer, which brings together tax veterans like Ms Ong, Mr Tang Siau Yan of the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and Mr Sam Sim, Senior Advisor, University of Vienna Institute for Austrian and International Law Global Tax Policy Center, Member of Practice Council, New York University School of Law Member, International Association of Tax Judges. They will engage in a wide-ranging panel discussion on the issue, which will be moderated by another veteran in the tax space, Mr Eugene Lim, Co-Founder and Principal, Taxise Asia LLC.
“We’ll try to present things you can take away, so you can use them in work,” assures Ms Ong. “There’s no point in going into the theory of tax law, so we’ll really hone in on what the corporate lawyer needs to know.”
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the individual author/interviewee and do not represent the views of SAL Group, Drew & Napier or other parties.
TAX FOR TODAY
Corporate lawyers aren’t the only ones who can’t afford to be ignorant about the world around them; tax lawyers, too, have to stay on their toes, the issues they grapple with have become more complicated over the years. “We’re applying tax principles to transactions that could never have been fathomed when the tax rules were being drawn up,” says Ms Ong, adding that challenges like these keep practice fresh for her.