I’m going to be as diplomatic about this as I can. On our little planet, there are a lot of people with a wide variety of skills. That being said, not everyone is skilled in everything. Some people are great when it comes to painting pictures, some can repair a heart, some can hit a ball at 100 mph, and some can inspire people enough to get elected. People are incredible. But there’s something about being a part of each of those categories that requires you to be enough. That, my friends, is what we call competency.
Competency is about looking at a problem and saying to yourself, “Can I do this effectively and efficiently?” If you realize you can do it, but it’s going to take you a hundred times longer than it should, you are not competent. If your roof is sagging and you know you patch it quickly, but are worried that you might remove a necessary beam, I’ve got some news for you – you are not a competent builder. There’s nothing wrong with that though! It just means you need to find someone who is capable.
You wouldn’t expect a professional painter to defend a quarterback from a 300 pound offensive lineman. The massive fingers of many football players would make open-heart surgery a nightmare. Similarly, there’s not a lot of politicians you would want on your NFL team (although I bet a lot of people would like to see their elected officials go head-to-head with some towering footballers). If Linebackers vs. Liars ever becomes a thing, you’ll know it was said here first!
The moral of the story is that you play to the skills you have. You utilize the skills you are competent in in order to succeed. If you don’t, you’re going to leave everyone around you asking, “Why would you promise something you can’t deliver on?” And they’re going to be right.
Not all taxation is created equal
Competency is about bringing together the knowledge and skill set in order to fill a promise. Lately, it feels like the number of lawyers promising things they can’t deliver on has been through the roof. That’s not something I’m ok with. Many lawyers are competent in domestic disclosures, I’ll definitely give them that. Years of law school and the bar exam is enough to make sure of that. And I would be willing to bet that many of those lawyers would agree with me that the tax code is wildly complex. But what they don’t get is that foreign taxation is a different animal entirely.
If you need help with an OVDP case, you need to vet your attorney. Ask them how many foreign taxation cases they’ve worked in the past, how they fight the IRS, and ask them how they’ve prepared for the added difficulties of foreign taxation. If they tell you that foreign and domestic tax problems are pretty much the same thing, run as fast and as far as you can. The person fighting for you has to be capable of the much more complex offshore work. If they’re not competent, your future is in jeopardy.
Becoming competent in foreign taxation – such as OVDI/OVDP, FBARs, etc. – is not something that happens overnight. Instead, it’s a process. Taking the time and energy to make sure you know all of the ins and outs and can deliver on your promises is a grueling effort.
Better than competent
I’ve divided current-day attorneys into two groups – paper-pushers and power players. A paper-pusher is someone who is just here for the paycheck. They know that legal practice delivers a respectable paycheck and they let that be their motivation. But then there’s the power players. These are the warriors of the legal field. They’re the Rambos, Conans, and He-Mans of the tax world. They exist because they have an entire system stacked against them, but they still fight in order to help people in need. Their competency gives them the resolve to actually fight for their clients. A power player is someone who sees the overwhelming power of the IRS and roars, “You picked a bad day to mess with me.”
Alright, you’ll have to forgive the goofy analogy, but the point is there. Unless your attorney is actively fighting against the IRS for the betterment of their clients, they’re doing nothing more than charging a high hourly to fill out paperwork. I would define that as competency in paperwork, but not competency in fighting the IRS for their clients’ sake. That’s not the kind of person you want representing you in front of the obstacle of our story – the IRS.
Vetting your attorney to make sure they want to secure you the best possible resolution is a perfect example of an ounce of prevention toppling a pound of cure. And that’s what drives a competent attorney to become a skilled one. That drive, fighting the IRS in order to save their clients, pushes a good attorney to be a great one.