How to Become a Tax Attorney

Updated September 27, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Interested in pursuing a career as a tax attorney? This step-by-step guide explores the required skills, education, examinations, and credentials to pursue the role.

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Tax attorneys are licensed legal specialists that advise clients on asset management and the technical details of tax laws. These tax lawyers can also represent their clients during investigations and court proceedings.

Detail-oriented critical thinkers with a true interest in tax law make a good match for this career path. Becoming a tax attorney is a multi-year process that includes intensive education and credentialing. This guide covers the necessary education and licensing steps to become a tax attorney, along with job search tips.

Steps to Becoming a Tax Attorney

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree: You must hold a bachelor's degree to qualify for admission to an accredited law school. As such, your educational journey will begin with a four-year undergraduate degree. You can major in any field but may find it useful to choose a relevant subject such as pre-law, business, finance, or economics.
  2. Go to law school: Upon completing your undergraduate degree, prepare for and take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Most law schools require applicants to submit LSAT scores. You can pursue a career in tax law with a juris doctor (JD) or master of law (LLM) degree, but some states do not require you to possess a JD to take the bar or practice professionally. However, most LLM programs require applicants to hold JDs as a precondition for acceptance.
  3. Build your tax specialization: Some law schools offer JD and LLM programs in tax law. However, students may prefer the versatility of generalist law degrees and choose other academic routes to build their taxation specialization. Options include a master of science in taxation degree or state-based board certification as a tax law specialist.
  4. Pass your state bar examination: For individuals wondering how to become a tax attorney, remember that lawyers in all practice areas must hold licensure. These licenses are issued at the state level by organizations known as bar associations. To earn licensure, you must "pass the bar," which requires a passing grade on a rigorous exam testing your knowledge of law and legal proceedings.
  5. Establish your career: Once you hold a license to practice law, you can begin seeking suitable entry-level positions in the public or private sector. Tax attorneys work for all levels of government. However, many work in private practice or with law firms offering representation to clients involved in tax disputes.

Required Education for a Tax Attorney

Becoming a tax attorney in most states requires a minimum of two degrees: a bachelor's and a JD. Some states do not require professionals to possess JDs. Practically every law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) includes a four-year bachelor's degree as an admission standard.

The career prep and job search portal Zippia analyzed the undergraduate majors most commonly pursued by tax attorneys. It listed the following as the top five subject areas:

  • Law (pre-law programs)
  • Accounting
  • Taxation
  • Legal research and advanced professional studies
  • Business

Many ABA-accredited law schools consider applicants from all academic backgrounds. You do not need to major in one of these subject areas or any other with direct relevance to tax law. However, studying a tax-related subject as an undergraduate may help you develop a deeper and more complete knowledge base.

You can earn your JD as a generalist or taxation specialist. Specialized LLM programs in taxation offer another option, but these usually require a JD for admission.

Required Credentials for Tax Attorneys

In the United States, all practicing lawyers must possess licensure. These licenses are issued at the state level by authorized agencies usually known as bar associations. To obtain licensure, candidates must pass a rigorous test known as a bar exam. Most states require candidates to possess JDs, as well.

Beyond passing the bar, each state maintains specific additional licensing requirements. Despite broad similarities in these requirements, there are some important differences among jurisdictions. Many states also stipulate that lawyers must meet continuing education minimums to maintain eligibility for license renewal.

You can explore state-specific standards by linking to the jurisdiction of your choice from this ABA resource.

Optional Certifications and Degrees

Tax attorneys can also pursue optional credentials to advance their expertise as specialists, including taxation certification and LLM degrees.

LLM degrees are advanced professional credentials usually pursued by learners seeking to enhance their knowledge of specific legal areas. Many law schools offer tax-focused LLM programs. In most cases, a candidate must already have a JD to enroll in an LLM program.

Some graduate schools also offer tax law and/or taxation degrees at the master's and/or doctoral levels. In many cases, these programs typically suit non-law professionals. In looking at how to become a tax attorney, some people elect to pursue these degrees instead of LLMs.

In other cases, tax lawyers who earned their undergraduate degrees in accounting sometimes opt to obtain their certified public accountant (CPA) license. Employers may not require tax attorneys to hold CPA licenses, but the credential can help build credibility and offer more career flexibility.

Some state bar associations offer credentialing programs that certify a licensed lawyer's expertise in taxation. Many also require lawyers to meet minimum continuing education standards to renew their licenses. Tax attorneys may be able to focus their ongoing learning on tax-related legal subjects, depending on the state.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Tax Attorney?

When looking at how to become a tax lawyer, start by assessing the amount of time it will take to complete the required education. Bachelor's programs typically take four academic years to complete. Some schools offer pathways to earn bachelor's degrees more quickly, but four years is the default standard.

The JD programs at ABA-accredited law schools usually require three additional years of study. This brings the minimum timeline to about seven years if you pass the bar exam immediately following law school.

An optional LLM degree in taxation will usually add 1-2 additional years to your timeline. Requirements for becoming a state bar-certified tax law expert vary and usually involve multiple years of practical work experience. Five years is a commonly cited benchmark for earning state certification, between additional education and work experience.

Should I Become a Tax Attorney?

Taxation is a crucial aspect of economic life for both individuals and companies. Given this reality, tax lawyers remain in constant demand among clients seeking advice and representation in mediating disputes.

When thinking about how to become a tax attorney, remember that tax lawyers benefit from many available job options. They can work in private practice, representing individual clients. Corporations with an ongoing need for internal tax law expertise also hire lawyers as permanent staff members. Many tax attorneys also work in the public sector at the federal and state levels.

At the same time, tax law is notoriously complex and constantly changing. Tax attorneys need to maintain complete and up-to-date knowledge of the field, demanding significant effort.

Successful tax attorneys often say that the field demands a genuine love of learning and knowledge. Detail-oriented critical thinking skills also function as a strong predictor of success in this demanding but rewarding field.

The Job Hunt

Like many other fields, networking can help emerging tax lawyers land their first jobs. Effective network-building can include strategies like volunteering for legal organizations, giving lectures, and building an authoritative social media presence. These efforts can expand your network of contacts while building your expert image.

It can also help to stand out from other applicants in a crowded field. Optional degrees and credentials may offer an employment boost.

For specific openings, consider job boards specific to law, taxation, and accounting. Leading examples include:

  • Law Crossing: This law-focused job board claims to be the world's largest online employment portal for lawyers, legal staff, and law students.
  • LawJobs.com: Another law-oriented job board, this website allows job-seekers to filter hundreds of openings by location, position title, experience level, and more.
  • TaxTalent: TaxTalent brands itself as a professional development resource for tax experts. In addition to open-access job boards, TaxTalent also hosts a "job agent" feature that allows users to sign up for targeted alerts.
  • National Association for Law Placement: This organization promotes diversity in legal professions and doubles as a recruitment tool for its long list of industry partners. Members can also access an extended collection of helpful career-building resources.

Upward Mobility

Tax lawyers working in the private sector often join law firms. These firms range in size from small boutique operations to large organizations with corporate structures. Attorneys working for firms can secure promotions into the organization's "partner" ranks. Partners assist in the management of the firm and can earn lucrative compensation based on the company's profits.

In private practices, the rank of "managing partner" is the apex of the legal profession. Some managing partners co-found law firms, but others earn their way into the position through promotions. Managing partners guide the firm's activities and shape the organization's future growth strategy.

Attorneys can also work toward judiciary careers. Judges can receive appointments or become elected, but they almost always require extensive experience and licensure.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), judges earn slightly more than lawyers on average. In May 2021, the BLS reported median salaries of $128,710 per year for judges and $127,990 per year for lawyers.

Questions on How to Become a Tax Lawyer

How do I become a tax attorney in the USA?

Becoming a tax attorney in the United States requires at least a bachelor's degree and a JD law degree, depending on the state. From there, each candidate must pass a licensing examination issued at the state level by a law board or bar association.

How long does it take to become a tax attorney?

The education and licensing processes involved in becoming a tax attorney typically take 7-8 years. Optional degrees and certifications that may enhance your employability can add 3-5 years to your timeline.

Is tax law hard to get into?

Like all legal professions, tax law demands complete technical knowledge of all applicable laws, statutes, and precedents. Building this knowledge base requires significant time and effort. Tax laws also undergo regular change, making continued education necessary. However, the career path is attainable to committed individuals with a sharp eye for detail and a passion for learning.

Do you need to know math to be a tax lawyer?

Many tax attorneys have academic or professional backgrounds in accounting, which is a mathematics-oriented field. However, advanced mathematics skills rarely factor into the professional duties of a tax attorney. Instead, they focus more on legal technicalities and case analysis.


Reviewed by:

Portrait of R.J. Weiss, CFP

R.J. Weiss, CFP

R.J. Weiss is a certified financial planner and current CEO of the financial education company The Ways To Wealth. Weiss has worked with clients across many fields, including insurance planning, investment planning, income tax planning, and retirement planning. The Ways To Wealth teaches the fundamentals of financial planning to hundreds of thousands of monthly readers.

R.J. is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Page last reviewed September 23, 2022

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