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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tax Prof Profile, New Professor Edition: Michael Hatfield

This week's Tax Prof Spotlight inaugurates a series of profiles of folks starting their careers this fall as tax professors at American law schools. We hope the profiles will help introduce our newest colleagues to the tax community.  [If you are, or know of someone who is, a beginning tax professor, please email me here to be included in the series.]

Spotlight_2Michael Hatfield (Texas Tech)

      • B.A. 1991, Texas A&M
      • M.A. 1993, Texas A&M
      • J.D. 1996, NYU

   

Hatfield

Having gone to law school thinking I would work for some noble public purpose, my first summer I applied for a job with NYU law school professors doing research into "philanthropy and the law." I thought maybe it'd be about fancy art work or something cool, which was close enough to a noble public purpose for me. I was surprised to find out that "philanthropy and the law" really meant tax. Nevertheless, it seemed better than going back to west Texas for the summer.

So I went to work at the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law. Its Executive Director Jill Manny took pity on me as the on campus interview week approached and I had as yet been able to answer the one question we all knew would be put to us by the big NYC firm interviewers: corporate or litigation? Still being somewhat unsure of what the difference was between them (but beginning to suspect that "noble public purpose" wasn't somehow the distinction), I must've been a sad sight. Jill told me the correct answer was "C. None of the above. I want to be a tax lawyer." She assured me that tax lawyers didn't have to work as late into the night as big firm corporate or litigation lawyers; were smarter and nicer and, generally, better dressed. She also told me not to wear a brown tie with a grey suit. Maybe she just meant "better dressed than you are." And off I went to interview.

I repeated "I want to be a tax lawyer" to at least forty different interviewers; and it worked. I worked as a summer associate and then part-time as a law student and then later as an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. I worked as a tax lawyer doing private equity deals, mostly international venture capital fund investments by tax-exempt institutional investors. Debevoise recruited a host of eccentric characters, about as many as a large firm could have and still be able to convince its clients that it was a law firm and not a PBS-quality reality tv show. A lot of them were tax lawyers. And with one notable exception, like Jill said, they really were smarter and nicer. Okay. Two exceptions. But one of them really wasn't very well dressed either.

One night, however, about 3 am, I was on the phone at my apartment in Brooklyn with someone who had a French accent but was calling from Taiwan. He had some question about a tax issue. And in a flash I realized that "international venture capital tax lawyer" was a lot more fun to put onto a resume than it was to be. Answering tax questions that didn't respect time zones didn't sound like the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

So I moved to the "personal planning" department at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, another good New York law firm but, quite honestly, not nearly as much fun as Debevoise. I was right to assume that really rich folks would be much less interested in calling a junior trusts and estates associate at 3 a.m. than would cranky mid-level corporate associates stuck in some foreign office trying to understand some sort of scrawled mark-up of a junior tax lawyer back in New York. "Personal planning" (the Simpson euphemism for "death and taxes") seemed like a good fit. But about the time I began to figure out the difference between the "unified credit" and just about anything else, my wife told me she had enough working in the NYC alternative school system and maybe we should move back to Texas.

We moved to San Antonio where I went to a work at a tax firm from a bygone era. They hadn't gotten the memo that lawyers are supposed to be exhausted all the time. They hadn't gotten the memo that lawyers were expected to bill 2,000 hours a year. I don't think they had gotten the memo about 1,800 hours or, quite frankly, 1,500 hours. All of the lawyers were home grown; they had all been trained by the same partner (who had been practicing longer than NYU has had a LLM program); almost all the lawyers lived within a few blocks of one another. We had breakfast tacos every Friday morning, and still had those pink message slips instead of voice mail until just a few years ago. We went to lunch together, eating enchiladas and talking about taxes and our kids. And we had birthday parties and Thanksgiving parties and a big Christmas tree, and everyone knew whose sister was having what operation next Thursday. And, somehow, everyone made a really nice living from it. It really is the way tax lawyering should be done, I think. It was a family place. A real oddity among American law firms, as far as I know. I did tax, estate and business planning for six years, until I became a shareholder. Now I'm "of counsel," which is the best way to be a lawyer I must say, though I'm still not quite sure what it means except that I don't do much but don't have to worry about getting the legal assistants paid.

I'm an associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, which is back in west Texas where I started and never imagined I would live again. Its nice and dry and about 325 miles from the nearest bigger city, which is Albuquerque, New Mexico. It a rather ideal place for contemplating the tax law and noble public purposes and pretty much anything else, since there's really not much else to do out here but sit and think and watch the sky. Lately, I've been thinking about tax-exempt issues, which it turns out is what my first job in a law school was doing, about a dozen years ago. I feel like it was an arranged marriage between the tax law and me, but Jill was right. She knew. Or at least she knew enough to make me change my tie before I went to those interviews.

Each Saturday, TaxProf Blog shines the spotlight on one of the 700+ tax professors in America's law schools. We hope to help bring the many individual stories of scholarly achievements, teaching innovations, public service, and career moves within the tax professorate to the attention of the broader tax community. Please email me suggestions for future Tax Prof Profiles. For prior Tax Prof Profiles, see here.

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