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Alumni Breakfast Series for Students - Tax Law

Five alumni representing very varied careers in the area of tax law shared thoughts about their own experiences and offered students practical advice at the Alumni Breakfast on Tax Law, held in the Wellington Center on October 26.

The first speaker, Michael Costa ’81, a Partner and Managing Director at Ernst & Young LLP, said he originally wanted to be a litigator. He changed his career path when the accounting firm he worked for while in law school offered him a job at the same time that he was offered a position as an assistant district attorney.

“I don’t know if I would have been happy as a litigator,” Mr. Costa said, “but things worked out.”

Mr. Costa very quickly decided to work towards becoming a partner in his firm.

“Someone’s gong to make partner,” he recalled thinking, “and it might as well be me.”

Mr. Costa said his job has “great content” and has provided him with many opportunities to publish articles and work with different cultures.

“The key was the law degree,” he noted. “I had the best professors at New York Law School.”

Mr. Costa is involved primarily in transactional work in the international market. He commented that what he does is “very valuable” if you’re good at it and keep up, which requires daily reading.

“The good news is that it’s complex,” Mr. Costa remarked, “and the bad news is that it’s complex.”

Marc Lewis ’95, Vice President of Tax Planning for Sony Corporation of America, characterized tax law as “one of the best areas to work in because it’s one of the few areas where you can actually practice Constitutional law.” He added that tax law is “ever changing.”

Mr. Lewis recalled that as a student he did not have “the most structured plan in the world” for his career. His undergraduate degree is in fine arts and he took only one tax course at New York Law School. Mr. Lewis said he also entertained the idea of becoming an assistant district attorney and interned in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Upon graduation, he was offered two jobs: one as an ADA in Las Vegas and one with Ernst & Young in Washington, D.C. Mr. Lewis went to Washington.

While working for Ernst & Young, Mr. Lewis earned an LL.M. in tax from Georgetown. He wrote a thesis on taxation in ecommerce that helped open many doors for him. Eventually, he went to work for a law firm because he wanted to be strong in many areas.

“You want to expose yourself to as many things as possible,” he explained.

Mr. Lewis said that he, unlike Mr. Costa, had no interest in becoming a partner in his firm. Instead, he went into the corporate world. Practicing tax law in a company means that “you’re in the middle of so many different things,” he said. “To me it’s really kind of an exciting place to practice. You have to understand what drives the business and what drives the company.” He said that, for example, he could talk for hours just about the issues involved for multi-national companies in realizing profits in different areas of the world.

Basil F. O’Connor ’75, a Partner with Schenck, Price, Smith & King’s Tax and Trust and Estate Department, remembered that “I watched a lot of Perry Mason as a kid,” and as a result, “I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney.” Mr. O’Connor did practice criminal defense law at the start of his career, but discovered rather quickly that he really didn’t like it. For one thing, he recalled, “the clients were always pretty typically guilty.”

Mr. O’Connor said he wasn’t sure what to do with his career, but his outlook changed radically when he saw one of his former teachers, Professor Joseph Arenson, at a New York Law School event. Professor Arenson suggested that Mr. O’Connor apply for jobs at a number of places, including the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. O’Connor took the advice and got the job at the IRS.

“It was pretty intensive and at the beginning, it was pretty interesting,”

Mr. O’Connor commented, but after a while, he wanted more of a challenge, and so he went into private practice. Later, he joined a firm and became a partner.

“Be careful what you wish for if that’s what you aspire to do,” Mr. O’Connor told the students. He noted that there are many pressures on partners, but he enjoys his work although, in his opinion, “tax court litigation is really frustrating because there’s a real bias toward the government.”

Still, Mr. O’Connor said he considers his practice good because, “it keeps you in court. It keeps you in shape.”

Philip J. Michaels ’76, a Partner in the New York office of Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, noted that he had come “full circle” in his career. He began as a student at New York Law School, and now is an adjunct faculty member. In the beginning, he would not have predicted any of it.

“After my first year, I didn’t like law school,” he said. He was working with his father-in-law in the garment district and considered changing his career goals, but he did return to law school the second year.

“I took an income tax class and I finally found what I really wanted to do,”

Mr. Michaels said. He took every tax course he could and developed a strong interest in working in trusts and estates. Following graduation, he went to work in a small law firm.

“That was perfect,” Mr. Michaels recalled. “Trusts and estates involve a lot of things, including real estate and tax. To me, that is a general practice.”

“If I was not practicing in this area, I would not be practicing law at all,” Mr. Michaels commented.

Although he never imagined himself in a giant law firm, Mr. Michaels eventually joined Fulbright & Jaworski, which has almost 1,000 attorneys in offices around the world.

As an estates lawyer, Mr. Michaels often works with whole families and multiple trusts that extend over many years.

“Litigation in this area can be very, very emotional,” he explained. “It’s not just about money. Sometimes clients don’t want to let go for emotional reasons.”

He also has become well versed in the world of art.

“Wealthy families like to collect art,” he noted. “They get into trouble collecting art.”

Mr. Michaels cited one case he handled in which his client sold a Picasso painting that, years later, during a resale, was pulled because of a suspicion of forgery. Mr. Michaels avoided litigation and proved the authenticity of the work.

The final speaker at the breakfast was Robert Firestone ’90, who was recently appointed a Commissioner for the New York City Tax Appeals Tribunal by Mayor Bloomberg. Mr. Firestone has served in the Tax & Bankruptcy Litigation Division of the New York City Legal Department for 13 years. Prior to that, he was an Associate at Sullivan & Cromwell.

“I’m a tax lawyer who took the public service route and I find it very rewarding,” he said.

Mr. Firestone began his career as an accountant and went to New York Law School at night. He also is a member of the adjunct faculty. He went into tax law because it was an area he found “interesting and intellectually challenging.”

Although Mr. Firestone said he had no interest in being a litigator initially, he became one while working for the New York City Corporation Counsel. He moved up through the ranks and ultimately supervised all of the City’s tax litigation.

“It brought me into a lot of different areas, including deregulation of the energy industry,” he said.

Mr. Firestone said his work involved many Constitutional issues and that his experience in public service was “very gratifying.”

During a question and answer session, one student asked if going to an accounting firm for a first job would “taint” someone later applying to a law firm. The panelists agreed that accounting firm training had improved significantly in recent years, but it might still be difficult to convince some firms that a lawyer coming from an accounting firm was qualified to be an associate.

“Decide what you want to do,” Mr. Costa recommended, but added that it probably was “ easier to go from Sullivan & Cromwell to Ernst & Young than from Ernst & Young to Sullivan & Cromwell.”

“I don’t think you can go wrong either way if it’s your first job,” Mr. Lewis noted. “Work hard and be in the moment. There’s a lot at New York Law School to take advantage of so be smart about how you spend your time here. This school is a great place to start.”