Heather Field on Tax Practice and Ethics

Published on: Author: Manoj Viswanathan

Heather Field, my colleague and fellow tax scholar, has written two important articles at the intersection of the practice of tax law and professional ethics. There are scant resources for (1) tax practitioners seeking guidance on how to act ethically when making discretionary decisions involving aggressive tax planning and (2) tax law faculty who want to foster in their students both a professional identity and sound ethical judgment. These two recent pieces by Professor Field address this void.

Aggressive Tax Planning & the Ethical Tax Lawyer,” forthcoming in the Virginia Tax Review, argues that a tax practitioner desiring to be an ethical tax planner should identify and implement her specific philosophy of lawyering in order to help her make difficult discretionary decisions in a principled manner. Further, the ethical tax practitioner should, when implementing her approach to lawyering, work to counteract subtle factors (such as biases from institutions, clients, and themselves) that can skew her professional judgment. By applying various philosophies of lawyering to a concrete tax planning example, Professor Field’s article goes beyond abstractions to provide individual tax practitioners with specific, actionable guidance on how best to conduct their practice in an ethical manner.

Professor Field’s second article, “Fostering Ethical Professional Identity in Tax,” forthcoming in the Columbia Journal of Tax Law, highlights the importance of advancing in law students a sense of ethical professional identity. By contrasting professional identity with the related principle of professionalism, Professor Field contends that developing future tax practitioners’ professional identities has many salutary effects, including promoting good judgment, improving student well-being, and advancing career prospects. But how can tax professors promote professional identity in their classrooms? Professor Field provides detailed descriptions of the exercises she has successfully used and the challenges she has experienced while using them. This rich level of detail permits other tax professors to tailor the exercises to their specific students and particular goals.

These pieces are extremely timely contributions to the literature. Fundamental changes to U.S. tax law are looming and the potential for future ambiguity is large. Tax professors, students, and current practitioners will all find Professor Field’s two articles helpful as they attempt to navigate the ethical thicket that practicing tax law entails.