Dedicated follower of taxation

True, not too many lawyers choose to go into taxation, and those who do get a certain…reputation. Some tax lawyers, though, have hidden depths. Fiona Callister reports

If the words tax lawyer and accountant bring to mind a whole list of cruel jokes, then prepare to think again.

With all due respect to the mothers of those who practise these professions, there is a reason why none of the characters in This Life were tax lawyers or accountants. But Baker & McKenzie’s new tax partner Jeff VanderWolk could become the new ambassador for tax lawyers everywhere.

He has recently moved from accountants Deloitte & Touche to add a US tax capability to the London office of the international firm.

Initially, VanderWolk seems to fit into the stereotypical mould of the tax lawyer. A reticent individual, he is unwilling to explain how working for an accountant differs to working for a lawyer, saying that the topic is not relevant to the current conversation.

But slowly and surely VanderWolk begins to open up a bit and to show more of the man behind the suit. And while he may be a tax lawyer, he has also composed the music for his wife’s first feature film, which has just been shown at the Sundance International Film Festival. It is a low-budget Spanish film with English subtitles, so VanderWolk warns that it is not likely to be coming to your local multiplex in the near future, although a distributor has shown an interest. However, if you spot The Inseminator in Time Out, then that’s the one – a love story with a lot of social commentary thrown in, according to the very proud VanderWolk.

As VanderWolk’s Spanish leaves a lot to be desired, he had to compose the music based on the images alone, working at the weekends and late into the evenings to get it finished. He is clearly one of those unfathomable people who does not collapse exhausted on the couch the minute they arrive home. “I used to write books on tax law, so I got into the habit of working when I got home,” he explains.

Those books were written during a brief period when VanderWolk taught law at the Universtiy of Hong Kong. He originally moved to Hong Kong with Baker & McKenzie 13 years ago as a fairly junior lawyer, initially to offer US tax advice, but soon he also started offering opinion on local tax law, which he admits did not take much effort, as the tax code in the former British colony is only 75 pages long.

After spending eight years in the office he was tempted away to Deloitte’s. “It was at a time in my career when I was just coming up to the point where I would be considered for partnership,” remembers VanderWolk. “The Deloittes opportunity in Hong Kong was very attractive, as the managing tax partner wanted me to take over his portfolio.

“It was not an easy decision to leave Baker & McKenzie and I felt almost disloyal. But I had a perception at the time that the big five were taking over the world, and it seemed like a great opportunity to step up to being their number one tax adviser.”

While at Deloittes he dealt with its crown jewel clients, including Proctor & Gamble and General Motors.

When his children started to grow out of the English school system in Hong Kong, VanderWolk and his wife started to reconsider where they wanted to live. After mulling over the idea of returning to the US, where he was born, they ditched that idea in favour of London.

“Professionally, I was keen to come here. Europe is growing fast, whereas Asia was in financial crisis after years of boom, which I was lucky enough to experience. I was also keen to qualify as a UK solicitor, as I learned a lot about Commonwealth tax law when I was in Hong Kong. I like the notion of being a global citizen, and this is the third part of the world where I have worked in the primary financial centre.”

Having arrived in Deloittes’ London office, VanderWolk’s career path was to change again over dinner with an old Baker & McKenzie friend.

“My mentor at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong is now a US tax partner in Zurich. He was visiting London and we had him over to dinner. He asked me how I was enjoying life, and said that if I was enjoying Deloittes then fine, but if I thought I’d be happier at Baker & McKenzie, then I’d fit in with its business plan.”

So now he is the first US tax partner to be based in Baker & McKenzie’s London office, and is believed to be only the second partner in London dispensing US tax advice, following the move of Stephen Fiamma from Jones Day Reavis & Pogue to Allen & Overy.

And concerning the image of tax lawyers, he is not going to lie down and accept defeat. Giving an answer which sounds often used, although VanderWolk promises it is not rehearsed, he almost manages to convince: “Tax law, in fact, is very exciting. The American Revolution was a tax revolution. It was about taking money from people to run government – and that’s what most revolutions are about. I see tax as the central political theme in the history of civilisation.

“For me, being a lawyer is about helping people to do something they want to do in the best possible way. Tax is a direct cost to people, so when they want to buy or sell something, tax is going to take a lot of what they want to pay, and if you can help them then that’s a direct saving.”

However, VanderWolk does concede that tax is an area that few lawyers want to practise in. “It’s very technical, so you have to like solving problems,” he says. “The popular image is that people who like maths would go into tax, but I believe it’s the area of law that has the most intensive use of language.”

Now let’s try that word association game again: what do you think when you hear the word tax lawyer? If your opinion has remained unchanged, then you have to at least admit that VanderWolk has tried his best.
Jeff VanderWolk
Tax partner
Baker & McKenzie