Top Lawyers: Dr Agustin Arbulu Of W Tax Group On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law
… I believe we create our own luck by turning every situation into an opportunity. Life will inevitably throw obstacles and roadblocks our way. However, many individuals use these setbacks as an excuse to give up and quit. But those who succeed have the drive and tenacity to see beyond the problem, push past it and use the setback as an opportunity to rise to the challenge and find the value in learning from the adversity and move on. Setbacks and obstacles are merely opportunities in disguise.
Navigating roadblocks, never giving up, working hard, tenacity and resolve are how we create the luck that shapes our success.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Agustin V. Arbulu, president/COO and Tax Counsel of W Tax Group, a national tax resolution and tax-planning firm located in Southfield, Michigan. Dr. Arbulu has practiced tax and business law for more than three decades, representing individuals, small to mid-sized businesses and tax-exempt organizations and has taught tax law and graduate-level business and management finance courses at various universities. Dr. Arbulu holds a doctorate in business administration from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, holds two MBAs — the first from Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and the second from Lawrence Technological University — as well as a JD from University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and an LLM in Taxation from New York University Law School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I grew up in Peru until I was 13-years-old and came to the United States. My father and grandfathers were physicians. As I was growing up, I thought of medicine. But during high school here, I realized I just did not really have the appetite or aptitude for that.
While in college at Michigan State University, I never thought about law as a career. And then I went to graduate school in Arizona to get a business degree. I was just 20-years-old, eager to get through my education and had no work experience. While in graduate school, I remember there were two to three classmates who happened to be attorneys. And when I heard them talk or make presentations, they were always organized and spoke in a manner that just stood out. And I thought, “Boy, I need to learn that.” So sometime in the summer, when I was about to earn my MBA, I decided I wanted to try law school. I graduated that summer and did not know the protocols one needed to follow in applying to law school. I packed my bags and headed back to Detroit. I secured an interview with the associate dean of the University of Detroit Law School, Dean Downs, and even though law school at U of D had already started, I begged Dean Downs to let me in. He admitted me on a “probationary basis.”
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
The W Tax Group wtaxattorney.com offers a focused and experienced approach to representing taxpayers on personal/individual income tax matters or business-related payroll or income tax matters before taxing authorities (whether it be the IRS or state taxing agencies).
Specifically, we address collection issues, including threats of garnishments, levies and liens that can be overwhelming and scary to taxpayers.
We are here to be the taxpayer’s voice before the IRS to achieve the best possible outcome, whether it is financially or non-financially based. Whether we are responding to an IRS notice or proactively planning, we understand what is acceptable to the IRS and acceptable to the taxpayer, not only for the present but also for the future.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- I refuse to accept “no” for an answer.
- I have a dogged determination to complete whatever goal I set for myself.
- I always make a commitment to put in the time and to always be prepared and ready 100 percent of the time.
I have had a varied career. I have taken advantage of numerous opportunities that have presented themselves to me, such as serving as CEO of at least four organizations while continuing to evolve as an attorney. Somehow all those experiences just added to my armor.
I honed my unique qualities as an attorney by taking the practical and adding to it, not being stuck in just doing it one way or another, but by adding a different perspective to everything I touched while focusing on synthesizing and integrating and taking law, finance, management, business, leadership and strategy concepts into the practice of tax resolution. All of this combined has given me the ability to gain an overall competitive advantage over those in my area of practice.
During a recent meeting with our staff of attorneys and enrolled agents, I realized they are used to reaching a tax resolution without really thinking of different ways to find a solution that saves our clients’ money. This is a unique quality that I possess that I try to pass on to my staff. Too often they are thinking of using the IRS or state tax authority to finance the tax liability. An example is where taxpayers fail to notice their own homes can be used to settle taxes owed. How? By using their home to refinance at six percent or less, where they have equity, as opposed to entering into a payment plan with the IRS or a state taxing authority where the cost of unpaid interest and penalties can exceed anywhere from 10 to 22 percent or more.
Recently I represented a taxpayer who owed $26,000 to a state taxing authority. The state proposed a 36-monthly payment plan that would have cost my client $36,000 in total payments. Instead, I recommended to my client that they work with their local bank to secure a three-year loan. Within 24 hours, they were approved for a loan from their local bank and will end up paying $28,052 for a savings of $8,000.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe we create our own luck by turning every situation into an opportunity. Life will inevitably throw obstacles and roadblocks our way. However, many individuals use these setbacks as an excuse to give up and quit. But those who succeed have the drive and tenacity to see beyond the problem, push past it and use the setback as an opportunity to rise to the challenge and find the value in learning from the adversity and move on. Setbacks and obstacles are merely opportunities in disguise.
Navigating roadblocks, never giving up, working hard, tenacity and resolve are how we create the luck that shapes our success.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
Some educational settings had a greater influence than others. I like to think four schools had the greatest influence: Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University provided me the opportunity to meet classmates that were older than me and had seen the world; the University of Detroit gave me a start in law and taught me legal concepts; New York University taught me tax concepts from top-notch experts in their fields that have stayed with me to this day; and, finally, Case Western Reserve University, where I earned my doctorate in business administration, I met some of the smartest people and learned to research, critique and bring concepts from different fields into what I am doing.
There is no doubt that we all have different IQs when we take standardized exams. Clearly, each of us has different brain wiring. I believe you can achieve anything you set your eyes on. Yes, going to a top-tier law school can open certain doors faster than others. However, life has a way of leveling the playing field. It is really how committed you are to chasing your dream and working to achieve it.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
For me, I would not do anything differently, except I would say to my 20-year-old self: “Be patient, don’t be too impulsive. You will get there in time.”
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
I am driven to provide the best service possible to our clients every day. This requires building an organization that offers a seamless, efficient and effective process. What motivates me? I have a deep desire to be the best in my field of work. Otherwise, I won’t do it. I have always had the desire and drive to build an organization that is known for having the most qualified personnel that provides the best possible outcome for the client. This also means attracting, building and retaining a team of colleagues who are committed to learning and growing every day. When I think about organizations or departments I have led, in almost every case I have been able to achieve “best in class” or “best workplace” status. I see no reason why we cannot do the same here at the W Tax Group.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
One of the many exciting projects I am currently working on is developing team-building programs and huddles with our sales/marketing team at W Tax Group with the goal of helping them develop the skills needed to make our clients feel comfortable and reassured.
When someone who is facing an issue with the IRS or state taxing agency reaches out to us for help, they are typically highly agitated, upset and uncomfortable. An important aspect of our job is to advise and reassure them that everything will be okay and they are with the right organization. This way we can effectively address their needs while providing them comfort and reassurance.
In today’s world, if a business wants to thrive, a critical component is having a culture of teamwork within the organization. I believe that a close-knit team will ensure productivity and a good work environment.
The skills needed to work with clients who are distraught and feel they have nowhere to turn involve a program that requires our workers to constantly practice team-building exercises every day. This is why I am excited to develop and implement our team huddles. When everyone within the organization comes together and works in sync, we can truly say the business is moving forward and in the right direction.
I make it standard practice for us to work on team-building exercises every day. The benefits of team building include increased communication, planning skills, employee motivation and employee collaboration.
When all of these dots are connected, you are then providing the best possible service to your client. Again, this requires a disciplined and committed approach to repeating these team-building exercises every single day. As the late world-famous classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.”
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I don’t think beyond what I am doing today, except keeping my eyes focused on the present, being the very best that I can be today and building a world-class organization from top to bottom while offering the best service.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I can share a couple of “war stories.”
The first is about Mike, a former lawyer with a successful New York practice, married to an occupational therapist who is disabled. Mike one day contracted C. diff (C. difficile) and sepsis, which rendered him bedbound with mounting ongoing medical expenses.
Instead of the couple paying their taxes, they began using whatever available funds they had to continue medical treatment. They ended up owing the IRS more than $45,000, including interest and penalties. In mid-2021, Mike contacted our office and I begin to review his case. Given the IRS standards developed for allowable expenses, this family had a monthly disposable income of $800. I learned that Mike had previously entered into an installment agreement with the IRS to pay roughly $450 a month. Mike could not afford to pay $450 a month.
Like a detective or forensic accountant, our team began to compile Mike’s monthly medical expenses. After nearly three months of dogged focus on this case, Mike eventually produced his family’s monthly expenses. With that information, I made the calculation that monthly medical expenses averaged $700, leaving a monthly disposable income of $100.00.
My team and I drafted a letter to the IRS telling his story with 70-plus pages of supporting medical documentation. After a 45-day review by the IRS, they came back, agreeing to a payment of $100 a month. Exactly what we had proposed. As Mike said, “Agustin’s dogged and precise lawyering is the hidden gem of all tax services. His team saved my wife and me by obtaining a partial payment plan that we can meet without an overbearing strain on our resources. For this, we will be forever grateful for years to come.” For me, it was the correct outcome. It took staying focused and determined to gather all the information and then tell the client’s story to the IRS.
The second is about Jeff, who believed the IRS was wrong in calculating the taxes he owed from distributions from a retirement account over a couple of years. He was nearing retirement as a successful businessman and thought he correctly paid all the taxes he owed. I listened to his story and then put together the tax information he had in his possession with the information I had from the IRS.
Once organized, I went back to the client to discuss it further. Now, this is a common occurrence where individuals are convinced that they are initially right and will not believe you unless you show them documentation. It is really about individuals not recalling events clearly. After thoroughly examining his tax transcripts, debit and credit card statements and related documentation, I presented and then carefully communicated the information I found to Jeff.
A few days later, Jeff came back and said, “Augie you were right. I checked my bank account and I had thought I paid $90,000, and it was really $9,000.” Within three days, the matter was settled with the IRS.
The key is to keep the lines of communication open by staying in touch with the client and having constructive, candid conversations with the client in a way that is not demeaning.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I like going into the office and feeling the vibe and interfacing with everyone from the administrative office to the sales/marketing people and to the tax preparers. I love every aspect of this job. My clients are from all across the country. I rarely meet them in person, but I talk to them constantly over the telephone or through email or text. I think that is the new norm.
Aspiring lawyers need on-the-job experience. They cannot accomplish this work through book learning alone. Aspiring lawyers need to gain practical experience through trial and error which includes working with senior attorneys who have experience.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
I do like working with clients face-to-face, however, COVID has changed that and now I have clients that I have never met. Before COVID, we had more personal interactions with clients. Even calls with the IRS are more over the phone now, and if you are dealing with appeals or tax courts, you are dealing with Zoom meetings. I think that this practice is here to stay.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Just look at the internet. If you have tax problems, there are a myriad of options for individuals to choose from. I think you have to carefully leverage all aspects of social media and the internet while making contacts with people and organizations who can serve as referral sources.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
Tax attorneys must possess comprehensive knowledge of the federal tax code and other tax laws combined with an understanding of business and financial concepts to develop successful strategies. This requires gaining practical experience focusing on tax and business law.
Tax lawyers must have a familiarity with tax laws to properly advise clients on how to take advantage of tax credits, communicate on behalf of clients with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and practice in tax court. Some tax attorneys work in the area of estate planning, where they counsel clients on how to structure wills and trusts for maximum tax benefits. There are also tax attorneys who represent clients before taxing authorities, addressing collections or audit issues based on positions taken on returns, non-filing of returns and/or non-payment of taxes owed.
I believe tax attorneys boasting the following skills and experiences can excel in successfully representing their clients:
1. Knowledge of Accounting and Financial Concepts
It is imperative to have practical knowledge of both financial and accounting concepts. A tax attorney needs a solid understanding of both to be able to review financial statements and use them in representing clients in different situations.
2. Excellent Communication and Listening Skills
Despite the complexity of the tax code, an attorney must know how to explain it to clients in plain, understandable language to help them make decisions. An attorney must hone clear writing and articulate speaking skills. Often clients or taxpayers are nervous, scared, concerned and feel exposed. As a result, a successful tax attorney is a good listener and is patient, while also being inquisitive and empathetic.
3. A Critical Thinker and Expert at Analysis
A successful attorney needs skills to read and understand statutes, regulations, procedures, processes and case law and can accurately analyze and apply them to a client’s situations.
4. Possess Strong Research Skills
The tax code, regulations, procedures and processes constantly change, so an attorney needs to be adaptable, with strong research skills, to provide current advice to their clients.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
Working with a variety of clients and addressing their issues, from the very simple to the intricately complex, takes an incredible amount of practice. Doing this over and over based on different situations, planning, collections, or a combination of both, gives an attorney the skills needed to be the very best in the field.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Elon Musk. He is non-conforming, a genius. He converted a concept into something functional and changed the auto industry and so many other sectors.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!