The heroic nature of tax lawyers.

Author:Jensen, Erik M.
 
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"We'd slice out his liver and feed it to the rats."(1)

John Grisham's(2) The Firm is it, the book that will change the image of the tax lawyer. Though a work of fiction, it gives birth to a new conception, a new vision, of the tax specialist that entire libraries of law review articles cannot duplicate.

Those of us in the tax law business know that we are bright, engaging, and athletic; we combine animal magnetism(3) with erudition. However, tax lawyers are lumped with accountants in the public mind,(4) and are burdened with the images of thick spectacles, green eyeshades, cluttered minds, and unlimited capacities for boredom.(5) One commentator has even stated that a "tax lawyer is a person who is good with numbers but who does not have enough personality to be an accountant."(6)

No one, it has been said, ever made a movie or television series called Frontier Accountant:(7) "Exciting scenes of people resolving whether revenue should be recognized or deferred, or the appropriate amortization of good will, doesn't sound like it could build up the appropriate suspense before the commercial."(8) Someone must have totalled the receipts at the Longbranch Saloon, but he (or she) was hidden off-screen in a back room. And can you think of any books in which a major character has been a swashbuckling accountant?(9)

Tax law also has generated no cinematic spectaculars, unless you count films like The Untouchables(10) or other stories of "revenooers" prowling the hills for moonshine. But Kevin Costner and Sean Connery were not playing tax lawyers.(11) And tax cases that have arisen from movie production really should not count for this purpose either.(12) When tax lawyers have appeared on the silver screen or in works of literature, the poor guys have generally been characterized as "nerdy,"(13) "today,"(14) "nebbishy,"(15) or "off-the-wall."(16)

Tax law may be important.(17) It may even deal with sexy matters.(18) It involves money, and some glamour attaches for that reason alone.(19) Tax lawyers are often public-spirited(20) and always smart. Professor Amsterdam has noted: "It is seldom given to mortal man to feel superior to a tax lawyer."(21) And occasionally tax law is tinged with humor(22) or mysticism.(23) But a tax lawyer as hero? Nobody would have thought it possible.(24)

Until now. Mitchell Y. McDeere, the protagonist in Grisham's thriller, is a tax lawyer(25) who graduates near the top of his class at the Harvard Law School(26) and who is recruited by a secretive Memphis tax firm. Normally someone with Mitch's credentials and interests would have headed for New York or Washington, at least for a few years of apprenticeship. Benini, Lambert & Locke has only about forty lawyers, a number that is very small by Wall Street standards,(27) and Memphis does not have the cachet of the eastern metropolises. However, Bendini's attractions--huge salary, incredible fringe benefits (including a new BMW in the color of his choice),(28) and interesting work--are irresistible.

The work load at Bendini is staggering, even taking into account the firm's billing practices: "[I]f the [client's] name crosses your mind while you're driving to work, stick it for an hour."(29) But what aspiring young Harvard lawyer has reservations about 100-hour weeks when there are difficult intellectual puzzles to solve and the resources, like a 100,000 volume library, to maximize quality? Apart from the firm's clubbish characteristics (all lawyers are white, male,(30) and Christian), Mitch and the other Bendini superstars fit Marty Ginsburg's characterization precisely: "The tax bar is the repository of the greatest ingenuity in America, and given the chance, those people will do you in."(31)

Sure, family life suffers. "I'm competing with the firm, and I'm losing badly," complains Abby McDeere.(32) The ducks at the Peabody Hotel and the spirits of Graceland are limited in their capacities as spouse-substitutes.(33) However, the Bendini partners assure Mitch, and Mitch tries to assure Abby, that short-term deprivation can lead to early retirement and long-term gratification.

Potential readers with limited tax backgrounds may be relieved to know that The Firm contains no references to the passive activity loss rules.(34) Nevertheless, any reasonable reader might be concerned that a book peppered with discussions of Caribbean tax shelters, limited partnerships, Indonesian oil and gas deals, and so on, could soon become a drag.(35) And it might have been just that, if Bendini were your regular tax firm.(36) But, happily, it is not. In the midst of his around-the-clock work on perfectly legitimate client problems, Mitch realizes--a tax lawyer's brilliant deduction--that all is not right in his new world.

For one thing, an ethereal partner, who appears at quite inopportune times, has "the most evil face [Mitch] had ever encountered."(37) For another, although no lawyers have left Bendini in seven years, a sizeable number have suffered violent deaths--real deaths(38)--since 1970. In fact, almost immediately after the McDeeres' arrival in Memphis, two Bendini lawyers end their taxable years early while scuba diving off Grand Cayman Island. When Mitch is caught examining the portraits of the deceased in the firm's library,(39) the remonstrations of the omnipresent Mr. Black Eyes add to the pervasive sense of evil.

A little bit of death would have gone unnoticed; the connection between death and taxes is of long standing.(40) And one of the earlier deaths, when the firm made its one try at breaking the gender barrier, was of no particular concern to anyone.(41) But the other decedents seem to have been good fellows, and, in any event, the number of "accidental" deaths defies the laws of probability.(42)

Any lingering doubts that Mitch is mired in quicksand are erased by the appearance of the FBI. Three days after the announcement that he has passed the bar exam, Mitch is approached by an agent at a hole-in-the-wall delicatessen. When Mitch reports the contact to Bendini partners, he is told that both the Internal Revenue Service, nobody's friend,(43) and the FBI are after the firm's clients. Those clients may not have perfect morals, but they deserve legal representation. "It's harassment" by the government, nothing more, he is told.(44) Mitch is reassured that the firm's extraordinary measures, including a security force that occupies an entire floor of the five-story Bendini building, are needed for protection against the feds.

Any relief that Mitch feels is temporary, however. Everything doesn't add up, a fatal flaw for a tax firm, and Mitch soon learns that the FBI is really on to something: Bendini is mob-controlled. In fact, the firm's role in national organized crime activities is so central that the FBI Director himself gets involved. The Director wants Mitch, bean-counter extraordinaire, to spill the beans on his senior colleagues.

The FBI may have the national interest in mind, but Mitch is not sure that the Bureau sees protecting his life as a part of protecting the public...

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