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Teaching Tomorrow’s Tax Pros

David Stewart: Welcome to the podcast. I'm David Stewart, editor in chief of Tax Notes Today International. This week: teaching tax. Technology has reshaped the landscape of tax law, practice, and education. But how are educators adapting to these changes? Joining me now from his home in Virginia is Tax Notes Today reporter Jonathan Curry. Jonathan, welcome back to the podcast.

Jonathan Curry: Hey, Dave. Always good to be here.

David Stewart: So who did you talk to?

Jonathan Curry: I had the pleasure of speaking with Omri Marian. He is the director of the UCI law school's tax program.

David Stewart: What did you talk about?

Jonathan Curry: Well, we talked about the challenges of teaching in the middle of a pandemic. How he's come up with some rather unorthodox methods of keeping his classes engaged. I won't spoil those for you, but you're going to want to listen out for that. And we also covered the technological revolution in tax law, and how he's been building a program from the ground up to make sure his students are ready to jump into the workforce.

David Stewart: All right, let's go to that interview.

Jonathan Curry: Omri, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today.  

Omri Marian: Glad to be here.  

Jonathan Curry: Well, I'm curious about what you're going to have to say today. One of the things that I've been kind of interested to find out is how you, as a law professor, are adapting to teaching during a pandemic. I mean, what does the typical class look like right now?

Omri Marian: So, all classes right now are done through Zoom. They're completely online. They're live classes. So, at least in theory, they're the same as regular classes, except that they're being done online. That, of course, is in theory, because I find it much harder to figure out students' responses when you can't actually see them or hear them. The worst thing that happens is when I tell a joke I have no idea if anyone is laughing. I feel kind of stupid.

Jonathan Curry: I'll try to give you that feedback.

Omri Marian: Yeah. I can tell you that it is challenging, again, mostly because the interaction is not the same as it is in live context. I will say, however, that it goes much better than I expected. I think leadership, legal education generally in the country and also in our school, did a fantastic job of moving online very, very quickly. Adapting to the situation very quickly. And I don't think there is a major interruption in terms of the content the students are getting, at least from the point of view of a  substantive context, I mean. So I would say, so far, so good. But I think it is also too early in the process to tell what are the long-term effects of this.

Jonathan Curry: Have you heard any feedback from professors and students and how they're handling this so far?

Omri Marian: One of the things that I'm seeing is the creativity of professors. They're finding new ways to teach students. For example, I recorded a song for my students over a presentation of the tax issues that we discussed at that point, which was deductions. And other professors are hosting celebrities in their classes. Also, something I did. I had Oscar Nunez -- Oscar from "The Office" -- greet my class.  

Jonathan Curry: No kidding?  

Omri Marian: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Curry: How did you manage to get Oscar Nunez to get involved?

Omri Marian: Oh, I paid him. There's no magic.

Jonathan Curry: There you go.

Omri Marian: But the thing is getting students engaged in different ways. The creativity goes to how to get to students engaged. And I have to say that students, as far as I'm concerned, and also something that I hear from other professors at least in my law school, they're doing a really good job trying to be there. Which is kind of amazing, because I really think it is much more challenging to students than it is to professors. It is very taxing to teach online for 90 minutes or two hours at a time, but I only have to do it once or twice a day. Students, this is basically their full-time schedule is sitting in front of the computer and learning online. And actually, I'm quite amazed at how well they're doing so far. That said, I'm also happy that there are only three and a half weeks left for the semester, so they don't have to cope with it for too long. At least not for this semester.

Jonathan Curry: I imagine Oscar Nunez's agent is going to be getting a lot of requests from other professors. They're going to be so jealous and kicking themselves they didn't think of it first. He'll probably be staying pretty busy going forward.

Now to talk about the program itself. As I understand, UCI Law's tax program is perhaps a little bit different than most. Could you tell us a little about the program? And what are some of the unique ways that you're preparing the next generation of tax professionals?

Omri Marian: Yeah, of course, I' be happy to. So, I'd been asked about -- now it's four years ago -- to start a tax program at UCI by the previous dean. And I said that I'm willing to do so provided that I and the other involved faculty will be getting the resources to start a program that is different than other programs because we didn't really want to have just another tax program. There are about 25 or 30, I guess, tax programs in the country now. And just having another one was not very appealing to us. 

And actually what we did, for a year -- over a year, actually -- we traveled all around the country and interviewed tax professionals, trying to figure out what it is that we can make different that tax programs, even though they are excellent tax programs, but that they do not currently offer. And I think we came up with a pretty unique curriculum when compared to other tax programs at least in two aspects.

One of them is the practical aspect, so our program is very much, I think, clearly divided between a doctrinal piece and practical piece. So you have to meet a practical tax skills requirement, which more students do through an externship. So the second semester of the program, they're only on campus three days and two days they they're away at the places of externship. So they actually graduate the program with real practical experience. And we have all kinds off employers participating in, you know, our externship program. We have law firms. We have state and federal agencies. We have multinational corporations. For example, right now we have externs at SpaceX, on the Capitol, at Activision, at Mayer Brown, Paul Hastings. And because this is a mandatory requirement, it's pretty different than any other program.

The other thing that we did -- again this was a response for something we heard from employers -- is that they really wanted students to be ready for the tax profession of tomorrow, not the one of today. In terms of knowing how to provide legal advice based on data and how to work with new platforms that assist tax professionals, so we decided that we're going to take it very seriously, and we incorporated these  platforms or these ideas in our program. So, for example, we have a cooperation with Alteryx, which is a big data analytics company. We actually built a whole course around their platform, which students are basically given thousands and thousands of rows of data and are required to create reports that contain legal advice based on the data. Most multinational corporations use this software. As far as I know, we're the only program actually teaches how to work with it. So, Alteryx were kind enough to license the software to us for free.

We're incorporating a natural language processing based software in our tax classes, so we have a cooperation with the firm called the Blue J Legal based in Toronto. It has a machine-learning platform, which is based on natural language processing, trying to predict outcomes' impact. So this is incorporated in many of our courses. And I have to say, I'm amazed at how well the software is working. We have a tax modeling class, where we teach lawyers how to do model tax outcomes based on data. So we are really focused on preparing students to how we think the tax practice is going to look like in the next three, four, five years.

Jonathan Curry: Now, do you think that these skills that your training students for, are these sort of broadly applicable? Or are they more just aimed at the bigger firms and companies that have a lot of resources?

Omri Marian: No, I think they are broadly applicable for two reasons. First of all, of course, the large firms, mostly I think the Big Four, are now adopting these tools, and I think in that sense, this is already there. I think we're just making our students more marketable in that sense because they're coming into the Big Four or similar large firms or multinationals with that knowledge. They don't have to be trained in house to acquire the skills. 

But one of the things that we're seeing with the platforms is what could be referred to as the democratization of data, or the democratization of AI. This software or these platforms make it very easy and relatively cheap for anyone to analyze big data without being a data scientist. I'm not a data scientist, I am not a programmer, and yet I teach the class on tax and data analytics because I'm able to do it given how easy the software or the platforms make the use of big data. So I expect that the first adopters will be the Big Four, large multinationals, but also that very quickly this will get into government. The IRS already does a lot of work with data analytics and AI. 

And I also expect that small firms will be able to leverage this software very easily. For example, the software we're working with that is based on natural language processing, if you learn how to work with it, you can cut your research time on a legal question. You can cut the first 10 to 20 hours of research. So this is something that I think it's going to be extremely appealing to teach, especially tax controversy with big firms. I expect that it will take them a bit more time to adopt, but they will eventually adopt it. I cannot imagine the practice -- practices remain the same in the next five or 10 years, given that these technologies are going to be very commonly used in the tax world.

Jonathan Curry: Now, what would you say to someone who might argue that this is a zero-sum bargain? You're teaching these practical or technical skills, but it's coming at the expense of doctrinal knowledge of the law itself.

Omri Marian: Well, first, that's wrong, because I'm also teaching the law itself. So the program is very doctrinal in the first semester. We absolutely do not neglect the doctrinal aspect of it. I honestly don't think you can be a good tax lawyer if you don't have doctrinal knowledge. So we absolutely cannot neglect the doctrinal part of it. And I will tell it now to any future student, any tax professional, even people that adopt it, this will be useless for you if you're not a great doctrinal person. This is true, I think, for any AI application, not only in law. It's nice if you're a data scientist, if you know how to work with data. But it is unhelpful to you if you're not also a subject matter expert, if you don't know how to put the data to use and you can only do that if you actually know the law.

So, I don't think this is going to replace lawyers. I think it is going to change the way lawyers work. I think it's going to change how many people are assigned to a specific task for example, or how lawyers approach a specific task. It may create new lines of work within the legal profession. But, at the end of the day, there's going to have to be a lawyer there to make a judgment call and to drive the memo and to give advice based on legal experience. So, I think it will change the legal market. I don't think it's going to replace lawyers. And I absolutely do not think it is going to replace the need to have very good doctrinal knowledge of tax law and tracking it and being on top of what's going on with reforms. Most likely, it takes time before any of this software or platforms are being updated every time there's a new tax field, which is basically every day so--

Jonathan Curry: Sure seems that way.

Omri Marian: Yes. So I don't think it can replace very in-depth doctrinal knowledge, which I said for like four times now. So, if you're not convinced, I can say it again.

Jonathan Curry: One more time, just for good measure.

Omri Marian: Yeah, OK. You need to know doctrine.

Jonathan Curry: OK, thank you. Is there anything that you wish that you had known as a tax student?

Omri Marian: Oh, yes. So here's a personal story. I did a tax LLM at the University of Michigan and then I went to practice at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York. Probably 50 percent of my time what I did there was structured notes offering, so the tax aspect of it, which meant I actually had to know how to use Excel, and I had to learn it on job, which was not a very pleasant experience, I have to say. 

So, I mean, one advice I'd give to tax students right now, is to still focus on doctrine because I think as lawyers this is the most important part. But you really need to be open to acquire and try to acquire yourself new skills. And it's actually not that hard to acquire those skills. Again, the democratization of data is something quite amazing. I did programming certificates online for-- I can't even remember how much it was. But it was really, really cheap. You can find ways to acquire the skills you need to give you the edge of a successful tax lawyer for very cheap. 

So, my advice to tax students is still focus on your doctrinal studies, but find the time to know a little bit more about data analytics and about basic data analytics software, even just Excel, through online courses. This is a huge bang for your buck. And if you are able to intelligently discuss data analytics in an interview, this will give you a huge advantage over people who can't. And most people, unfortunately in law schools can't today.

Jonathan Curry: Well, Omri, that does it for my questions. But I thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it.

Omri Marian: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

David Stewart: Before we move on, we have a bit of one of Professor Marian's songs. This one is on ordinary and necessary business expenses.

And now, coming attractions. Each week we preview commentary that'll be appearing in the Tax Notes magazines. Joining me from her home is Content and Acquisitions Manager Faye McCray. Faye, what will you have for us?

Faye McCray: Thank you, Dave. In Tax Notes Federal, Jason Chen explains how the CARES Act economic stimulus package affects individuals. Michael Levin explains how two areas of federal tax common law could be used to relieve tax reporting requirements. In Tax Notes State, Michael Fatale discusses cases relating to dormant commerce clause standards as applied to state taxation. Craig Griffith discusses a solar energy tax reduction. In Tax Notes International, Aleksandra Bal explains new VAT rules for e-commerce transactions that will take effect on January 1, 2021. Stephanie Perrella and Beau Sheil examine how tax advisers can structure cash pools based on the OECD's new transfer pricing guidance. And on the Opinions page, Roxanne Bland considers legislative supermajority requirements for raising or enacting new taxes. Joseph Thorndike discusses the near-miss fiasco of the 1943 filing season.

David Stewart: You can read all that and a lot more in the April 20 editions of Tax Notes Federal, State, and International. That's it for this week. You can follow me online @TaxStew, that's S-T-E-W. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for a future episode, you can email us at podcast@taxanalysts.org. And as always, if you like what we're doing here, please leave a rating or review wherever you download this podcast. We'll be back next week with another episode of Tax Notes Talk.

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