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Advice for aspiring women tax attorneys

Take ownership

Decide what you want. Figure out what it takes, then go for it! Do not hold back. Make your career and your life what you want it to be.

Take charge of your own career. Define your own path. Do not wait around to be granted opportunities. In a male dominated industry, your superiors may not immediately perceive you as an understudy or protégé. Expressing a common professional interest can help bridge the gender divide. If you want to build your skills in transfer pricing, let the senior partner who specialises in transfer pricing know you would like to work on a project under their supervision to strengthen your transfer pricing skills. Taking ownership puts you in control. Ownership is empowering.

Add value

In addition to taking ownership of the projects you work on and your career, focus on adding value to everything you do. What unique value can you bring to the table? Even routine tasks add tremendous value if done well. Believe in yourself and your abilities. When you have a task to do, focus not only on getting the specific task done, but also think about what else you could do to add even more value to the project. For example, if you are asked to look at a regulation, consider looking at the legislative history as well to see if it offers any additional insight. Use your problem solving skills to figure out the solution not only to the question asked, but also questions that were not asked but should have been asked.

As in-house legal departments become more diverse and women attain more positions of power, the presence of a woman within the tax department becomes a more valuable asset to the firm. Diversity strengthens a team. Rather than focusing on how being a woman makes you different in a negative light, focus on how it makes you an asset. Taking that type of initiative adds value.


Knowledge is your main asset in tax. Build your skill set. Be eager to learn. Tax is extremely technical. Keeping track of technical developments is essential to becoming an expert in tax law. Your understanding of tax law's more technical points will often be scrutinised due to prevailing stereotypes about men being more adept at complex and abstract thought. Keeping abreast of developments in the tax code signals to your male colleagues that you are a worthy peer in the practice of one of the legal profession's more technically complex disciplines.

You do not want to box yourself in too early, however. It is good to have a broad understanding of various areas to be an expert in tax. Having skills in one area will help you in other areas by giving you a clearer view of the big picture. For example, understanding tax controversy and how transactions will be challenged will make you a better tax planner.

Learn from every project you work on and every experience you have. Every day you should be learning something new. Challenge yourself. Take on tough projects. If you want to become an expert in tax you have to challenge yourself to learn not only the technical skills but also tactical skills. For example, being able to explain complex ideas in simple terms is a very valuable tactical skill. Another very important tactical skill is being able to respond to a question raised by an adverse party or an arbitrator, such as an appeals officer or a judge, in a way that appears to answer the question asked but really gives the answer you want to provide without seeming evasive.

Your learning opportunities and your value expands when you collaborate and build a team. Find people who are willing to help you and work with them. You can learn skills and gain valuable insight from a wide variety of people. For example, your assistant can be one of your most important mentors. You can learn from your assistant how various partners operate, expectations for young associates and the firm culture.

Evaluate the skills of those you work with and learn from them. Take certain components from different people and develop your own style based on what works for other people, but also works and is unique to you. You do not have to be exactly like any one person to succeed. You are not limited to one person, your role models and mentors can and should be multiple people. Try to emulate the positive qualities that you see in a variety of role models. However, do not get caught up in comparing yourself. You are unique. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Do not beat yourself up over your weaknesses. Instead, take action to make your weaknesses stronger. No one is perfect. Perfection is not obtainable.

Moreover, be aware of how gender stereotypes can affect your perception of yourself and your abilities. Your own insecurities may cause you to see your male colleagues as having a better grasp on technical concepts, when in reality they face the same struggles and difficulties in picking through the tax code's more arcane passages. Tax law is a rigorous and trying discipline for all practitioners, female and male. Do not let traditional stereotypes of male superiority in complex thinking plant seeds of doubt in your own mind about your ability to succeed as a tax attorney.

Stay positive

Focusing on what you can learn from each project will help you stay positive. Every experience, even a bad one, is a learning opportunity. Avoid wasting time and energy focusing on the negative aspects. Figure out ways to turn a negative situation into a positive one. For example, if an appeals officer or a judge is treating you differently because you are a woman, avoid getting angry and turning hostile. Do not take it personally, the problem is theirs not yours. Empower yourself. Learn how to deal with the situation. For example, try to figure out a way to use this bias to your advantage. If there is a stereotype you do not like, focus on how your actions will prove that stereotype wrong. Get excited at the opportunity to prove a stereotype wrong.

Avoid the muck and the mire. No one gets ahead slinging mud. Talking bad about others makes you look weak. It is also a waste of time. Because of certain stereotypes it is particularly dangerous for women to engage in negative discourse. Avoid complaining unless you have a solution and you are talking to the person that can provide the solution you desire.

Be present and decisive

One way to stay positive is to avoid constantly second guessing your decisions. It wears you out, drags you down and wastes time. If you decide to leave work early to go to your child's birthday party, be present at the party and enjoy the time with your child. Avoid thoughts of guilt. Do not go to the party and then think about what you should be doing at work. Enjoy the party. After the party is over you can always finish up what you need to do later that night. Similarly, if you cannot make it to Back to School Night this year because you have a large appeals meeting that you cannot reschedule, do not stress about it. It is what it is. Avoid feeling guilty, you cannot make it to every school and after school event, but when you can, savour the moment. Quality is better than quantity.

Accept praise and do not apologise

Part of being valuable and staying positive comes from focusing on doing the best job that you can do. Do not confuse being weak with being likable. Women often have a tendency to reject praise and accept unnecessary blame. Wholeheartedly accept praise for a job well done – there will always be a man eager to take credit for collective success if you do not take it for yourself. When mistakes are made, focus on providing solutions to the problem rather than offering repeated apologies. As a woman, the best way to say you are sorry is to find resolutions to errors and help the team move forward with a project. Apologies do not add value, solutions do.

Success is yours!




Larissa Neumann and Jennifer Fuller
Fenwick & West

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