This is one of those columns where I sound like the old man yelling “get off my lawn, you kids” (or for New Yorkers, “youse kids”).
I teach many continuing education courses for CPAs. I often tell participants that I am like Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken.” By this I mean “I have a very particular set of skills.”
In general, I am of little value to anyone. People who know me well will, I am certain, affirm this. But I am quite skilled at tax research. I have proof of this.
I made my career, and put four kids through seven (and soon eight) college degrees by tax research and communication.
I started in Philadelphia, where my ability to read and recall current tax cases made me a resource to people with decades more experience than me, and gave me the privilege of frequent 4 a.m. bus rides to Manhattan to work on the firm’s most significant client at that time.
I have published over 100 articles in professional tax journals. Those things are 10 times as long as this column. So if you think it’s hard to make it through a tax column, well, just imagine reading one of my articles. That’ll cause you to shelter in place.
Einstein is credited with saying, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” So for those who always know what they are doing, research is seemingly unimportant. For the rest of us, doing it right matters.
I have reached the point in my career where others ask me the questions that they cannot answer. I usually cannot answer them either. Often they have no definitive answer. Thus, research becomes the only reasonable way out.
Or perhaps not. It is becoming increasingly common for professionals to answer challenging tax questions without researching how the law applies to a particular fact pattern.
The law must be researched. But it applies differently to different facts. I shoot someone and claim self-defense. How does the law define “self-defense”? How do my facts fit that definition?
Years ago, in my youth, I saw many research projects completed by other tax professionals that looked very much like mine. They cited the law and applied it to the facts to reach a conclusion. Maybe I disagreed with the conclusion, but I could not question their effort.
Now I get “research” supporting tax arguments that is made up of 12 PowerPoint slides. More often the support is a block-and-paste from a tax service with no context – that is, no discussion of how it fits the facts of the client.
I’m not sure why this is so. Perhaps poor training. Perhaps lack of intellectual curiosity. But anyone who calls themselves a professional in a field must realize that when unsure of what you are doing you, like Einstein, have an obligation to do research.
So why is it that young professionals can’t be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?
I’m going to throw them a lifeline. Laws written today are hastily constructed with gaping holes in them. Sometimes they are not even written in a formal way that would allow them to be cited as authority.
The 2019 tax filing deadline was extended from April 15 to July 15. We were informed of this by tweet. Yes, tweet. The extension was allowed by statute. “Normally” it would be announced by an official administrative pronouncement by the Treasury Department.
This time it was a tweet. So what, you say? Well, tweets leave out detail. They lack context for client situations. CPAs were left without answers for clients.
Many other tax issues are now addressed in FAQs issued by IRS. They, like tweets, have no authoritative weight and can be changed from day-to-day.
When the government treats (or tweets) the law so casually, perhaps it is unfair to expect young tax professionals to have reverence for it. So maybe, as The Who said, the kids are all right. Maybe we have met the enemy and they are us.
But I still want those kids off my lawn.
James R. Hamill is the Director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.