Mark F. Sommer is Chair of the Tax and Finance Practice Group of Greenebaum Doll & McDonald located in Louisville, Kentucky which is a six office southern central US regional law firm. Mark Sommer joined Greenebaum Doll & McDonald twenty years ago after he completed law school. He has successfully counseled and advocated in hundreds of federal, state and local tax controversy and planning matters, both administratively and in litigation. Prior to joining Greenebaum Doll & McDonald, Mark Sommer worked for the IRS Chief Counsel/ District Counsel Office in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to his government experience, Mark worked for Rippe & Kingston a regional public accounting firm while attending the University of Cincinnati College of Law in Cincinnati, Ohio. He earned his B.S.B.A. in Finance from Xavier University, Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1985; and he earned his J.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1988. Mark Sommer is admitted to practice in the Kentucky Supreme Court; the U.S. District Court, Western District of Kentucky; United States Tax Court; U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky; U.S. Court of Federal Claims; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois; U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana.
KJ- What does Breakthrough Law mean?
MS- As a southern central regional firm, we are committed to practicing what we call Breakthrough Law. The Tax and Finance Group at Greenebaum supports one of the most respected business and commercial law practices in the region with a firm goal of breaking barriers to achieve our clients objectives. Our firm has a strong history of breaking new ground in representing our clients and this is why we call it Breakthrough Law.
KJ- What motivated you to become a tax lawyer with a law firm rather than a public accounting firm?
MS- Someone gave me some great advice to work in a public accounting firm while I was going to law school to see if that is what I wanted to do with my career. I started working for a regional public accounting firm Rippe & Kingston with the firm commitment that I needed to work on projects until Labor Day. I kept my word to the firm and concluded that it was a great experience but it was not the direction I wanted to go in my career. I realized public accounting was not for me and that I wanted to be a tax lawyer with a law firm. By the time I finished my law degree, I was ready to move out of a public accounting firm and into a tax law practice.
KJ- I understand you did an internship for the IRS District Counsel’s office. Looking back, what did that experience teach you?
MS- When I decided that I did not want to be a lawyer in an accounting firm and before I interviewed with Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald, I undertook internship with the IRS District Counsel (now called the Chief Counsels office) in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was a great experience, and I enjoyed it there as the people were great. Even though you are considered a grunt Law Clerk and you work for free, the experience really gives you a leg up in working with the IRS Counsel’s office and you learn how the IRS District Counsel’s office operates. You knew they were smart and decent people and understood their structure and how they managed cases. It was a very helpful and enlightening experience.
KJ- What do you tell people about your firm?
MS- Although we are expanding into international to assist our clients on inbound investments and we are taking a lot of clients to China and Vietnam, our firm primarily serves a regional role for our clients. We are truly one-stop shopping for our clients in our states, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, as we make it a point to serve our clients on a regional basis. It is very deep in our culture in that our firm was founded in 1952 by tax lawyers as a tax law firm.
The men who started our firm (Sam Greenebaum, Bob Doll, Barney Barnet and Larry Leatherman) were all fantastic tax lawyers with government experience. There was an article in the Louisville Newspaper a couple of weeks ago and it was a piece where they remind you what happened 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. The article in the paper read to the effect “Fifty years ago today, Louisville Attorney Bob Doll argued his first tax case at US Supreme Court”. Bob Doll still comes into the office today and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work here and be trained by great and professionally demanding lawyers. In hindsight, I learned that what does not kill you makes you stronger. It has been such an opportunity to work with these great lawyers and I owe my career to them. You have the opportunity to ride great lawyer’s coattails for awhile but eventually the world turns and people are now riding your coattails; and you realize that you owe it to your organization to teach the other lawyers to deliver service– this is what we do!
KJ- What type of tax issues are you dealing with?
MS- My practice is predominantly controversy driven and in this regard it is primarily state and local tax controversy. One of the issues we are facing is the concept of rewriting the Uniform Division of Income Tax Purposes Act (UDITPA), which is a uniform law and other income apportionment issues. Virtually every state adopts UDITPA in one form or another as it is how a multi-state corporation determines how much to pay to the involved states.
The uniform tax laws were written in the 1950’s and here we are in 2008. The business world has been turned around a dozen times since then, yet we are still working with statues that were developed two or three generations ago. There is a big policy fight going on across the country right now; two or three years ago the taxpayers were just taking it as it was because the laws were in place!
KJ- Basically, you are telling me that you are advising clients to take a very close look at this issue…right?
MS- Yes, because you need to be aware of the issues and focus on the issues and scrutinize them even more. Yet at the same time, you need to be aware that the government is currently focusing on the government side of the same issues. This is why taxpayers are being challenged with audits and cases about what taxpayers have done or should have done in respect to these apportionment issues.
KJ- It is obvious you have a real passion for the tax legal profession as you are excited about your work. What advice would you give anyone considering entering the profession?
MS- Honest to goodness….I love the problem solving aspect of my profession. One of the toughest lessons I try teach our people is that when an issue hits our desk at the firm the odds are that six or so other people looked at it before it came to us. We have to deliver to the client and bring a different value to the table to our clients. The fact that we have so many recurrent clients that we have represented for more than thirty years or longer demonstrates that clients look at the value we bring to the table year after year. We learn not to measure our success in terms of dollars, but it may be measured in terms of calling to the client’s attention the potential problems out there, or just serving the client as a sounding board on issues. Some of my best clients may send me a small amount of work, but they call me and ask me for candor, and they are never offended when I give them candid advice and more often than not they follow it. The best part of being a private tax lawyer is that you are not required so much to make a lot of decisions, but you are required to have good judgment and communicate it.
I would tell those thinking about this profession that it is a marathon and not a sprint! You have got to love what you do and some days you love it more than others. If you are afraid to lose or afraid to fail, don’t come into this profession because you will not be doing your clients or yourself justice. You want to get up every day and be happy that you get to go to work today because it is a great thing. There is a Dennis Quaid movie out there– he is a thirty-eight year old rookie who goes back to pitch baseball in the majors and all of a sudden one day when he is really tired and wants to quit, he has this cathartic experience, like you know…I am doing what I love to do. He goes into the locker room and all of the younger baseball players are worried about money and everything like that. However, he is thirty-eight and playing baseball and he has already lived a lifetime in the profession and loves it. His outlook is “Hey, put a happy face on because we get to play baseball today.” This is how I feel about this profession. We get to practice tax law today!
KJ – Mark, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Your perspective is valuable to the Tax Intelligence Report readers around the world and we genuinely appreciate the time you gave to share your experiences.
Kathleen Jennings (KJ)
Editor, The Tax Intelligence Report
Mark F. Sommer (MS)
Chair of Tax and Finance Practice Group
Greenebaum Doll & McDonald
Louisville, Kentucky (USA)