By: Accounting.com Staff
Last Updated: December 2019
Tax attorneys help their clients navigate tax laws so they can make the right business decisions or personal finance choices. Tax lawyers work at law firms, sometimes as part of corporate legal teams. Tax attorney salaries average $101,898, making this a lucrative career choice.
This page outlines the skills and education needed to become a tax attorney, covering the process of becoming one, how long it takes, and details regarding credentials, licensing, and continuing education credits. The page concludes with a list of career and professional resources for aspiring and current tax lawyers.
What Skills Do You Need to Become a Tax Attorney?
Tax attorneys must possess comprehensive knowledge of the federal tax code and other tax laws. They also must understand business and financial strategies. Law school covers much of this subject matter, particularly for students focusing on tax and business law. The following section discusses other skills needed to successfully practice tax law.
Tax lawyers must have familiarity with tax laws to properly advise clients on how to take advantage of tax credits, communicate on behalf of clients with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and practice in tax court. Some tax attorneys work in the area of estate planning, in which they counsel clients on how to structure wills and trusts for maximum tax benefits.
Law school teaches students to think like lawyers, synthesize complicated laws, and express themselves effectively orally and in writing. Tax attorneys boasting the following skills can expect to excel in their careers:
Accounting and Math
Students typically gain these skills before entering law school through undergraduate classes in math or accounting. Tax attorneys need a solid understanding of both.
Despite the tax code's complexities, attorneys must know how to explain it to their clients in plain, understandable language to help them make decisions. Attorneys must hone clear writing and articulate speaking skills.
Critical-thinking and Analysis
Attorneys need skills to read statutes and case law and accurately analyze and apply these laws to their clients' situations.
The tax code constantly changes, so attorneys need strong research skills to provide current advice to their clients.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Tax Attorney?
The path to becoming a tax attorney typically consists of the following steps:
Earn a bachelor's degree, preferably in accounting, business, or mathematics. This typically takes four years.
Study for and take the law school admissions test, a standardized exam assessing analytical reasoning, logic, and reading comprehension. Plan to spend a few weeks studying, and consider a test preparation course, such as those offered through Kaplan and the Princeton Review.
Research and apply to law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). It could take up to a year to complete this step, which requires research, school visits, and complete applications. Consider costs, financial aid, graduation and hiring rates, location, and school size and culture when deciding where to apply and attend. In general, private law schools feature higher price tags than public institutions. Many students, however, receive some scholarship money or financial aid.
Apply for a summer internship at a tax law firm after your first year of law school to gain valuable experience and increase your chances of finding employment after graduation.
Earn your juris doctor degree (JD), which typically takes three years.
Apply for jobs. Firms and companies often interview law students in their last year of study. Some employers hire students or new graduates contingent on their passing the bar exam. Tax attorneys often choose a focus area, such as business tax, corporate tax, estate and gift taxation, finance, international tax, federal taxation, or successions.
Study for and take a state bar exam, which comprises 2-3 days of testing, which may include multiple-choice and essay portions. Expect to spend two months studying, dedicating most of your free time to test preparation. Again, consider taking a test prep course, such as BAR/BRI or Kaplan.
Optional: Obtain a state certification or an advanced degree in tax law, which can take up to five additional years. Though not required to practice tax law, these credentials can create opportunities for more jobs with higher salaries. For example, attorneys who want to advertise specialization in tax law must hold the proper certification to do so. State certification typically requires an exam and five years of work experience in tax law. A master of law (LLM) in taxation usually takes two years to complete and can shave a year or more off the work experience requirement for certification. Some firms require their tax attorneys to hold LLMs.
What Education Do You Need to Become a Tax Attorney?
Tax attorneys need a bachelor's degree and a JD. The section below describes the educational requirements in more detail. Landing a job as an attorney can be challenging and competitive, and a law degree does not guarantee employment.
Virtually all law schools requires a bachelor's degree for admission.
Students who wish to pursue careers as tax attorneys should focus their undergraduate studies on accounting, business, or math. Virtually all law schools requires a bachelor's degree for admission. A JD degree program begins with a broad-based curriculum, which covers general law topics such as torts, contracts, civil procedure, constitutional law, and legal research and writing. During their second and third years, students can take elective courses in their areas of interest.
Aspiring tax lawyers' class options often include introduction to federal tax, taxation of corporations and shareholders, tax practice and procedure, and international taxation. Some schools may offer JDs in taxation, but most feature JD/LLM joint degrees. Students may also opt for concurrent degree programs, such as a JD/MBA.
Most state bar associations require candidates to hold degrees from ABA-accredited law schools to take the bar exam and obtain licensure.
JD degree holders without a taxation designation can still become tax attorneys, but they should complete significant coursework covering tax and business topics.
Most state bar associations require candidates to hold degrees from ABA-accredited law schools to take the bar exam and obtain licensure. In addition, most law firms only hire graduates from ABA-accredited schools. Non-accredited and state-accredited schools exist, but they usually lead to a dead end.
Tax Attorney Career Development and Credentials
Practicing tax attorneys must hold a license conferred by a state bar association. Admission requirements for the bar may vary by jurisdiction, but the following sections summarize the processes for obtaining and maintaining active licensure and becoming certified as a tax lawyer.
Certifications and Continuing Education
All licensed attorneys must complete continuing legal education (CLE) to maintain their active bar membership. The number of required credits varies by jurisdiction, but it usually takes 2-3 years to earn the required credits.
State and local bar associations often offer CLEs for free or reduced rates. The ABA and a number of private companies also host CLEs. Attorneys can also earn CLE credit online or at in-person class sessions and conferences. Attorneys who want to advance their careers and promote themselves as tax specialists may pursue board certification in tax law from their bar association. Certification candidates must pass a specialty exam and log hours working in taxation, with hour requirements specified by their bar association.
Law schools and private organizations offer certificates in tax law, which can enhance professionals' careers, but practitioners should know that ethics rules contain strict mandates about whether attorneys can advertise themselves as specialists. Candidates should check with their state bar association for guidance.
Credentials and Licensing
Practicing attorneys, including tax attorneys, must gain admission to their state bar. A JD from an ABA-accredited law school and a passing score on their state's bar exam constitute the minimum licensing requirements. State bar associations conduct extensive background checks on candidates for bar membership to determine their moral character and fitness to practice law. Attorneys approved for membership attend a swearing-in ceremony and receive their credentials, after which they can begin practicing law.
Some jurisdictions share reciprocity, but generally, attorneys who want to practice in another state must take a new bar exam and apply for licensing in that state.
Learn More about Tax Attorney Careers and Take the Next Step Today
American Bar Association - Taxation Section
Members from across the country can attend meetings and conferences to discuss current issues and pending legislation, network, and hear from speakers about a variety of tax topics. The section also offers CLEs, tax podcasts, and advocacy opportunities.
National Association of Tax Professionals
New and experienced tax professionals, including attorneys, join this association for guidance on federal tax code updates, networking opportunities, education courses, an online tax library, and advocacy.
National Society of Tax Professionals
This organization provides its members with a tax research service, a federal tax alert, free and low-cost continuing education and professional liability insurance, a newsletter, and emails on current issues.
Tax Policy Center
A clearinghouse of tax topics, this website offers research and commentary, statistics, information on current and proposed laws, a blog, newsletters, and model estimates for tax attorneys and other professionals.
This online source offers legal blogs edited by tax law professors, deans, and lawyers, plus a comprehensive list of worldwide tax organizations, policy groups, grant opportunities, books, student resources, and state and federal tax law links.