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University: University of Cambridge
Tax barristers advise and litigate on all aspects of commercial and personal tax issues. Corporate and business tax matters may involve company or group reconstructions, transfer pricing and the use of losses and capital allowances. Tax planning for individuals can encompass capital gains, inheritance and income tax. Typical cases might concern advising on (or acting in disputes concerning) the sale of a family company or the creation and operation of trusts. Barristers also specialise in value added tax and other indirect taxes, including customs duties, excise duties, landfill tax and stamp duties. The work may involve detailed consideration of EU law.
An interest in a highly analytic practice is part of what led Thomas Chacko to a career at the tax Bar: "Tax is a very technical and law-heavy area, both in terms of the legislation and the rapidly evolving case-law. We focus more on complex statutory interpretation than most other areas of the Bar, so being alert to language is important."
Despite not knowing much about tax when applying for pupillage, Thomas knew he wanted "to do something technical, and to be in court regularly but not all the time, so I applied to sets that did specialist, commercial or chancery work". He found Pump Court a pleasant place to work and was impressed by "the type of work and the atmosphere in chambers". Following a 12-month pupillage, Thomas was happy to be taken on as a tenant. "We are a collegiate set and pop in and out of each other's rooms all the time," he comments. "That's essential, because the law is fast paced and voluminous, and you need to be able to bang on doors and ask questions of the more experienced members of chambers." He caught a glimpse of another way of working when on secondment to an accountants' firm: "That is a very different life, as you are generally working as part of a team. Here, while you might be researching something for a more senior member of chambers, you mostly just have to get on with your work on your own. When litigating, especially as a junior, you work more as part of a team."
One key feature of the tax Bar is that the balance between litigating and advising is traditionally more heavily weighted towards the latter, as Thomas explains. "As well as my own pieces of advice, I do a lot of devilling for senior members, where you basically provide them with a first draft. That's a great chance to gain exposure to more complex areas of law. Some of our advice is given with a view to litigation, while others focus on how to go about something correctly. Because tax law is complicated and it is possible to fall into traps quite easily, a lot of advance planning is required - VAT, for example, is quite counterintuitive."
This is not to say that tax barristers never get the chance to stand up and put their case to a judge. "We certainly do more advice than most, but there is still a fair amount of litigation," Thomas confirms. "You may find yourself as junior or second junior on a big meaty dispute, where you spend months going through documents, drafting and getting everything ready. Litigation has a long lead time, so a matter might be on your desk for nine months before you get to court." The smaller disputes, which are run without a leader, "are no less difficult - things can still be confusing and messy even when there is little money at stake".
Thomas describes a recent case of his own involving an academic who wanted his pension to be paid out, but first had to prove that he had not been careless in not having paid national insurance on time: "Often it's about creating an impression. I thought he had a good case, but it largely depended on whether we could project the right 'feel': would the judge think that this is a decent person or is he or she just trying it on? I was pleased that we gave the right impression and succeeded."
“The law is fast paced and voluminous, and you need to be able to bang on doors and ask questions of the more experienced members of chambers”
Furthermore, it's not just about the minutiae of the tax statutes: "Many cases are more about whether a contract existed or whether procedures were followed correctly. A lot of developments in trust law and restitution law have come out of tax litigation, because tax is one of the few areas where it might really matter exactly when a right comes into existence, for example. There is also a fair amount of EU work: "We do a lot of European law here, probably as much as practitioners in employment or competition; many senior members of chambers regularly go to the CJEU." The variety of subject matter is one of the best bits of the job: "You get a new set of papers, open them and have often not come across the area of tax you are asked to advise on. Then, over the next few days, you start to understand what’s going on. Tax is so varied - no one "knows" the tax legislation in this country, there's far too much of it - that you are always working through new questions. That can be unnerving at times."
Thomas has noted a definite shift in the contentious landscape. "Everyone is fighting more - both the Revenue and defendants - and the cases go on for longer. Matters used to be argued technically and informally, and there wasn't as much interest in the factual background. That is no longer the case; I recently did a 29-day trial with dozens of files and 15 witnesses that was a real fight over the evidence. It could have been a Commercial Court dispute, but it was being heard in the Tax Tribunal. Even though, by and large, I prefer having a practice where I'm working on papers, I do also like the fact that I'm in court at least once a month - it's an ideal balance."
Managing that balance is one of the most enjoyable aspects of a barrister's career. "Because you are self-employed, it's your own business and you decide how and when you work," explains Thomas. "There is no one looking over your shoulder. That can be tricky at times, especially when you have three deadlines approaching at the same time." And although it is something you are aware of before you start, the reality of being your own boss can still come as a shock: "I was surprised by how much the way you run things is your own responsibility. No one tells you what to do each day or when to do it. You have to take that on yourself."
Thomas warns that for the specialist Bar in particular, hard graft is required. "You have to put the work in," he cautions. "Bear in mind that there are only around 30 or 40 people each year who go to the commercial and specialist Bar - that's a tiny amount - and thus getting pupillage is extremely competitive. If you are still at university it is worth doing as well as you can academically."
With one eye on your exemplary grades, the other should be on trying to get a sense of what life at the Bar is all about. "Even in really specialist areas such as tax, you are still an advocate, so being able to demonstrate that you have had some general advocacy experience shows that you are genuinely interested in standing on your feet and having an argument," explains Thomas. "We don't expect you to have studied tax before you get here - there is often not the opportunity to do so - but putting some effort into finding out what this career might involve is a good idea."
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