If there really are only two certainties in life - death and taxes - then there will probably always be a need for tax lawyers. As long as governments want a slice of the action, experts will be relied upon for legal advice on the tax implications of mergers and acquisitions, property, employee benefits, estates and trusts, and so on.
For tax lawyers who want to broaden their career horizons and deepen their knowledge, there are many LL.M. programs around the world that provide training in domestic and international tax law.
"Many employers need to hire tax lawyers, but few know how to train tax lawyers," says Daniel M. Berman, director of the Graduate Tax Program at Boston University (BU). "A tax LL.M. is very helpful for a young lawyer to be able to be productive as a tax lawyer."
Some of the most established tax programs are in the eastern United States. Schools like BU, New York University (NYU) and the University of Florida offer specialized LL.M. programs focused on domestic or international taxation. NYU and two other top-ranked tax programs - Georgetown and Northwestern - offer combined J.D./LL.M. degrees in tax law.
"Most students pursue a Tax LL.M. because it is difficult to get hired for a tax position without it," says Jennifer Kowal, director of the Tax Law LL.M. program at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Junior tax lawyers in large firms often specialize quickly without the opportunity to learn different areas of the tax law. A Tax LL.M. program is often the most efficient way to learn the tax law in a comprehensive way."
"Often students cannot obtain a tax position without a Tax LL.M. degree, but if they can, I usually advise them to begin working and pursue the Tax LL.M. degree part-time," says Kowal. "The work experience and class experience often enrich one another."
Loyola is one of a handful of quality tax programs that have emerged in the western United States. Others include those at the University of Washington and the University of San Diego (USD). U.S. News World & Report has ranked USC, UCLA, and Stanford in the country's top-20 tax law programs, but of those, only UCLA a specialized tax LL.M. (actually, a Business Law LL.M. with a tax focus).
On the other side of the Atlantic, three of the University of London colleges - the London School of Economics and Political Science, King's College, and Queen Mary - are considered the best taxation LL.M. programs in Britain. Some law faculties at other UK universities like Edinburgh and Cambridge offer tax classes, but no specialized LL.M. degree.
In continental Europe, there are a number of standout international tax LL.M. programs. These include the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration (WU Vienna), Maastricht University, Leiden University's International Tax Center (ITC), and the European Tax College (ETC), an EU-focused program offered jointly by Holland's Tilburg University and Belgium's KU Leuven.
Those who take these internationally focused courses are bound to acquire a deeper and broader understanding of tax systems throughout Europe (and further afield) that employers in various branches will find valuable.
"Students really become experts in international tax law, are very familiar with tax treaties, and gain a lot of knowledge about different tax systems," says Michael Lang, director of the International Tax LL.M. Program at WU Vienna. "Our alumni mainly work for law or accounting firms, tax departments of multinationals, and governments."
Kees van Raad, academic director of ITC Leiden says most of the 30-40 students enrolled in his school's LL.M. program each year fall into one of three categories: recent law or economics graduates, experienced tax lawyers, and those who have worked for government ministries.
"The main reason for governments, law firms, and international enterprises to hire a person with an international tax LL.M. degree is the relative scarcity of people with a profound training in this area," says van Raad. "In general, tax law is widely considered a specialised field which is difficult to enter for the uninitiated."
But is tax law still a wise career destination, given the unstable global economy?
"The economy is not very dynamic at this moment, and that does affect the demand for tax lawyers, especially in transactional fields of practice," says BU's Daniel Berman. "But tax issues arise equally in contracting companies as in growing companies, and equally in dispositions as in acquisitions. So I believe that the demand for legal services in the tax field may be more stable than in other fields of law."
Image: "Taxes - Calculator Image" by eFile989 / Flickr (cropped)