Dear Katie - Should I take tax law?
“Does it matter what subjects I take at law school? Everyone says to do tax law, is this true?”
- Lost and Confused, 23
Oh my gosh, please promise me you will not take tax law. Even after I tell you a fun personal anecdote about tax law that will definitely make you want to take tax law, please promise me you won’t.
Let’s start with the broad question of what you should study at law school and whether it matters. This is a perennial question and obviously it depends what you want to do with your law degree. But my short, sneaky, whispered out the side of my palm answer is no, it doesn’t matter all that much.
What you study at law school is important, but not that important, at least in terms of what it helps to have studied in order to be a good lawyer. I realised once I was practising that the purpose of law school had not been so much to absorb all the specific knowledge in all the different subjects, but rather to absorb what I will call “a sense of things”, as well as get a lot of practice thinking in a legal frame of mind. Both of these things take a lot of time and hard work, so don’t think I am saying study is not important. What I am saying, rather, is that the specifics are less important than they might feel at law school. This, I hope, is liberating.
Obviously, it goes without saying that if you want to be a tax lawyer, and maybe if you want to work as a commercial lawyer, you should probably study tax. Tax is an important thing to have a sense of in those areas. Some subjects are useful because they give you a framework for thinking about the thing, and I would put tax in that category. When practising in the commercial world, it was useful to understand how tax was levied and the types of arguments about income and capital that could come up. It was not vital, but it was useful. I would say it put me on step two instead of step one.
But if you did not take tax, and you wound up with a job as a commercial lawyer, you could learn a lot as you needed it when the time came.
I say this with confidence because my whole time in practice I was a litigator, and at law school I studied neither evidence nor civil procedure (civil procedure wasn’t even offered while I was there). I guess evidence in 2008 was what tax is in 2018, because I always felt naughty and a bit inadequate that I had not taken it. And, it’s indisputable that evidence and civil procedure are enormous elements of day to day practice in litigation. By the time you’re a few years in you need them in your bones.
But, when evidence and procedure issues came up in my work, and they came up a lot, I read the Court Rules, and the Evidence Act, and the commentary, and I got feedback on the ideas from colleagues. I’m not sure anyone knew the difference.
Before I let you off the hook from studying things you think you will hate, let me caution you against knowing categorically which subjects you will enjoy and which you won’t.
I am a big feelings, creative type whose alternative to law school was film composing, yet I loved, and I mean loved tax. Personal anecdote time.
When I summer clerked I wanted to be in the public team. Public law had been my favourite and I was able to justify to myself that I was working for the greater good (a priority for me) because it was called “public”. I applied to be in the public team and the tax team, knowing that everyone wanted the public team and no-one would want tax, ew. I wanted to make it easy for them to help me, and they did.
And then, of course, I found public law to be tedious in practice, while tax law was AMAZING. The team was weird and fun and great, and the law itself was basically puzzles, and I loved puzzles. I came back from summer clerking and signed up for all the tax I could, and it was great.
A theme I have come across again and again in the podcasts is that people choose an option thinking they will love it, and they really don’t, or people find themselves somewhere unexpected and find that they love a thing they never considered. For that reason it is worth trying things outside your comfort zone, but preferably do it from a place of curiosity rather than obligation. (Notwithstanding that lovely story about my journey with tax, I still urge you not to take it.)
I am not big on forcing oneself to take only “proper” (ie “boring”) subjects. (Note that we do not do all or nothing here; it is generally a good thing to have a mix of “proper” and “fun” subjects, and hopefully some that are both.) It is easier to work hard on things that interest you, and if studying tax feels like drilling your eyeballs then it may not be the best course for you.
The truth is, there are far more subjects available at law school than it is possible to take for a law degree. There will always be compromise and prioritisation. Employers know this. As I say, with the exception of if you want to be a specialised lawyer practising in a particular area (family, employment, tax), the absence of a particular subject from your transcript is unlikely to be a death knell.
If you know how or where you want to practise, choose subjects that it would be useful to have a sense of in those areas. If you don’t know, use law school as a chance to follow curiosity and see what subjects seize you. Take some practical subjects, but make sure you also take the weird one-off elective with the visiting guest lecturer about robot law, if that interests you. The earlier you start being guided by curiosity over obligation, the better.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.