Mastering a Specialty in Tax Consulting

Benjamin Franklin, founding Father of the United States, once was quoted as saying, “there are only two certainties in this world: death and taxes.” Franklin didn’t have his M.S. in Accounting (MSA) from UVA but he may have been onto something.  In the MSA program there is a focus placed on that second certainty by developing students’ skills in the foundation of U.S Taxation in the Tax Consulting track.

In the spirit of the upcoming April 15th tax day, I thought what better time than now to write about my experience in the Tax track.  Also featured below is a Q&A from our very own Professor Patrick Wilkie, who teaches in the MSA program and specializes in the interaction between financial and tax accounting.

Tax is exclusive

Tax has their own … Groupme. Yes there I said it. I may be exposing too much and while doing so making our auditing classmates very envious. But then again I would be surprised if any audit students read a tax-centric blog, so I think we’re good.

Tax is exclusive. The tax group is like a second family, and the two tax classes that we take each semester are much easier when we all work together.

Corporate Tax class gathers around for a photo.
Corporate Tax class gathers around for a photo with Professor Wilkie

Struggling with a concept? Go to the Tax Groupme!

Don’t have the class notes because you were sick? Go to the Tax Groupme!

Think the homework due on the syllabus is “a bit much” with everyone’s CPA exam on Friday ?Go to the Tax Groupme! (to off blow off some steam)

During this past year, the Tax Groupme allowed my classmates and I to disseminate opinions and knowledge about concepts discussed in each of our classes.

Passing GCOM 7430 boosts confidence

GCOM 7430, “Taxation of Partnerships and Flow-Through Entities,” is not easy. In fact, it is rather infamous for being agonizingly hard at times. But you will pass! Tax students take this class during their first semester at McIntire. It is taught by Professor Porter who put each of us in a great position to be successful in the class.  She also reassured us that historically students who work hard in the class and stay on top of the classwork earn a good grade and get a lot out of the class.

The textbook for the class was dense and weekly readings were often long. For the first half of the semester we went through two chapters a week while only meeting once a week every Tuesday morning. This meant that if you had not given it your best effort to go over the material beforehand then you would quickly be disoriented at the beginning of each class. It is a type of class that really separates itself from the style and difficulty of the undergraduate course load.

GCOM 7430 may have been on a level of its own in terms of difficulty during the first semester, yet it was always comforting when Professor Porter would reassure us that if we could comprehend partnership tax then other concepts in tax and accounting will come naturally.  This class also contributed to the Tax track becoming a cohesive team working our way through the course together.

Talking with Professor Patrick Wilkie

I sat down with Professor Wilkie to ask a few questions about the program and to gain insight on some of the objectives of the tax program.

Professor Wilkie received his BBA, MBA, and Ph.D from the University of Michigan and teaches three of the tax classes offered to MSA students. He also teaches the “Introduction to Financial Accounting” course offered to undergraduate students who are seeking admission to the McIntire School of Commerce.

Why is it important for an MSA student in the Tax track to take the four required tax classes (Taxes and Business Strategy, Tax Research, Taxation of Partnerships, Taxation of Corporations)?

I strongly believe that the “Taxes and Business Strategy” course should be taken by all MSA/T students. It provides a foundation for understanding business taxation that will be important to all students in their future employment.  One could even argue that the course should be expanded to cover two semesters so additional topics could be included, such as personal tax planning.  While some of this material would be a review for some students, I think it’s important that everyone have a strong foundation in taxation.

The second most important class would be the research course.  The value of this course is that it forces students to improve their “learning on demand” skill.  No matter how many tax courses someone takes, there will always be topics that are not covered in those courses, and even for those topics that are included in other courses, the law continues to change.  Thus, the research course is invaluable for honing the skill to provide an answer to a client’s specific problems/situation.

The third course would be the partnership course, because there is so much detail and special rules to the taxation of partnerships and their partners.  This course also exposes students to the Code and Regulations.

The fourth course, corporations and shareholders, is similar to the partnership course, providing much more detail about corporate/shareholder transactions and exposing students to landmark cases, the Internal Revenue Code, and the Regulations.

What skills have you found students learn in these two semesters that prepare them to be successful in future client-facing roles?

I think it is important for students to practice reading the Code and Regulations.  Textbooks are fine for providing the overall foundation for understanding taxation….but textbooks necessarily summarize and provide “general rules,” rather than the actual law itself.  I also think it is important for students to appreciate that the law is often ambiguous and “incomplete.”  The “real life” situations taxpayers face are rarely as simply as textbooks imply.

I would also argue that learning about the importance of being prepared, to ask relevant questions and listening to clients is an important skill to develop.  Clients can’t tell you all of the relevant information because they don’t know the law….thus, it’s important to be able identify what the client is doing and they should be doing to accomplish their goals.

What is it like teaching for the big firms as well as at McIntire?

Teaching for the large firms (or any firms) is important because it allows me to assess what students from other schools have been taught, and what topics the firms believe the students should know at various stages of their development.  The firms also are sometimes the first to employ new teaching methods and technology that I would not know about if I only taught within the University.  For example, firms are finding that students often have a great deal of difficulty moving from textbook learning to actual application of their knowledge to produce useful “work product.”  So, they are cutting back on the amount of detail they teach and are focusing on developing simulations that require specific, useable work-product that a client can immediately use.

What are the most important learning objectives for Tax students as they look ahead to starting their careers?

I think one takeaway students should get is that learning is a life-long process.  While it is imperative to have a firm foundation in tax principles, students must develop and gain confidence in their ability to “learn on demand.”  Learning how to learn, learning how to think, and knowing what you to know, are really important things to take away from the MSA/T program.

Looking ahead

I have found that the Tax track at McIntire does a great  job developing both a base in each of the major taxable entities, as well as a solid understanding of the big picture and why the technical things we’re going to do for clients really matter. Most students, including myself, come into the MSA program having only taken one basic field type tax class, which covers mostly personal tax issues. And many of the topics we are learning in the four additional tax classes are concepts that the big firms aren’t expecting us to know until three or four years down the road.

What will add both short and long term value to our careers is the fact that we are acquiring both the technical knowledge of accounting, as well as the necessary professional and leadership skills acquired in Communication, Decision-making, and Negotiation classes. This combination puts McInitire graduates at a distinct advantage.

-Written by Greg Boland

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