Sunday, January 29, 2012
Hatfield on the History of Tax Lawyer Ethics
Michael Hatfield of Texas Tech has published to SSRN his study of the tax legal profession, in a historical context: "Legal Ethics and Federal Taxes, 1945-1965: Patriotism, Duties and Advice." Its abstract:
Legal Ethics and Federal Taxes, 1945-1965: Patriotism, Duties and Advice provides a timely historical review of legal ethics and federal taxes. Focusing on the first two decades of the modern income tax (1945-1965), the Article reviews the ethics literature of the tax bar, which was mostly written by very prominent tax lawyers (a founder of Paul, Weiss; partners at Sullivan & Cromwell, Willkie Farr, etc.), tax professors (including the dean at Harvard Law School), and government officials (including key advisors to FDR, JFK, and LBJ). This seemingly forgotten literature provides a remarkable contrast to today’s anti-tax climate, especially given that the highest marginal individual tax rate during 1945-1965 was 94%. The writers of this period emphasized the patriotic duty to support the federal government by paying taxes, describing taxes, for example, as the price to maintain capitalism (Merle Miller) and a “blessing” (Erwin Griswold). Several stressed the ethical duty of lawyers to improve their clients’ respect for the tax system (Norris Darrell, e.g.). “Ethics” for these writers was not an issue of the ABA canons but rather a more general, philosophical reflection. For example, in 1949, the tax committee of the ABA issued a report on the importance of natural law jurisprudence in tax. In 1952, the discussion at the Tax Law Review banquet (which was nominally dedicated to discussing “Ethical Problems of Tax Practitioners”) developed into a debate over whether or not Americans were more degenerate then than in the past (Edmond Cahn) or merely more self-conscious (Thomas Tarleau). But the ethics writers were also concerned with specific issues that endure to this day, such as when to disclose an arguable but uncertain tax position – some (Randolph Paul, e.g.) arguing almost any position the government was likely to question should be disclosed, others (Boris Bittker, e.g.) arguing against disclosure so long as the position was reasonable. There was wide disagreement as to whether or not tax lawyers owed a special duty to the system, but wide agreement that this theoretical debate was nearly moot given that conservative tax advice was usually not only the most ethical but the most practical. This pragmatic attitude – emphasizing that good tax practice, good tax ethics, and good tax advice tended to converge – reflected the “real world” orientation of these professionally accomplished writers, even though, by today’s standards, many of their statements seem idealistic. The salvaging of this forgotten literature is timely not only in its relevance to contemporary debates, but also its relevance to the increasing historical research of the income tax as its 100th anniversary approaches.