Grad Tax program hosts ethics workshop
It’s tax season, and for most people that means scrounging up their W-2s and filling out 1040 forms. For some, though, complicated sources of income and losses mean more complex filing, and with it comes the temptation to play with the numbers a bit. Ask the IRS about taxpayer ethics, and you can probably expect a lengthy reply, and maybe an audit.
Tax lawyers likewise deal with ethical matters, but for them, tax season is January through December. With this in mind, the Graduate Tax program held a workshop on legal ethics for tax lawyers last Friday, hosting three prominent tax attorneys from around the state.
Michael Lampert, who runs his own firm in West Palm Beach, began by telling the assembled students how many organizations are looking over the shoulders of tax lawyers. “There are an awful lot of groups out there that tell us how to practice,” he said.
Not only are tax lawyers in Florida regulated by The Florida Bar and American Bar Association, but also by more specific regulations, like those described in Treasury Circular 230, which describes the specifics of appearing before the IRS. Since many tax attorneys are also certified public accountants, they are accordingly regulated by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Lampert said infringing one group’s rules can often get you in trouble with other groups, and that a punishment by The Florida Bar could impact a lawyer’s ability to practice tax law, whether the issue was tax related or not. “So if you rob a bank, but report the income, you’ll still be in trouble,” Lampert told the laughing crowd.
Lauren Detzel, a shareholder with Dean, Mead, Egerton, Bloodworth, Capouano & Bozarth in Orlando, spoke next. She began detailing the ethical dilemmas that tax attorney’s face, focusing on what she described as the biggest problem. “The hardest one to deal with,” she said, “the one that going to come up day after day, is the duty of loyalty.”
A layman may not understand why fulfilling the duty of loyalty poses such issue, but a lawyer who has dealt with conflicts of interests will understand. Detzel is certified as a wills, trusts, and estates lawyer, a field that presents many possible conflicts of interest, as relatives and their competing interests make matters difficult. As soon as a duty of confidentiality owed to one client impairs the duty of loyalty to another, a lawyer has a big problem. And at that point, the responsibility is on their lawyer.
“When a conflict arises, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to take care of it,” Detzel said. “Most of time, what is that going to involve? Withdrawing from representation.”
Lampart further discussed the duty of confidentiality, and then Samuel Ullman spoke about the duties of truthfulness and zealous representation. Ullman, a partner with Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami, said that those two duties often interact, and not always in a good way. “I have seen lawyers in pursuit of that zealous representation fudge the truth a little bit,” Ullman said.