Portuguese Water Dog

I sometimes run into conflict with clients who are so angry they want to use me primarily for revenge, even if their case would have a better outcome if we approached the adversary calmly and with a reasoned strategy designed to get them the best financial outcome. Instead, these clients want me to employ any tactic that will punish and pummel their adversaries. In short, these clients want me to be their legal pit bull, conveying all the rage and frustration they’ve built up over their matter.

Their desire for revenge is almost always justifiable, but hiring an attorney to “get even,” or to be a mouthpiece for a client’s frustration is a bad strategy for dealing with the IRS. Moreover, the pit bull approach is not my style. I’m more of a legal Portuguese Water Dog– slow to get ruffled, stately and somewhat refined. Legal Ports are more effective than legal pit bulls: they get attention not because the adversary is afraid of them but rather because the adversary cannot ignore the elegance and beauty of the Water Dog’s legal reasoning. The Portuguese Water Dog conducts himself with dignity and quiet persuasion; the legal pit bull’s snarling is sloppy and off-putting.

Let me illustrate with a recent example. A client of mine faces a terrible finding from the IRS: $500,000 in income adjustments over 3 years that translate into an additional $200,000 in tax, interest and penalties. He wants me to fight on absolutely every little issue. I try to educate him about picking our battles strategically: some of his deductions won’t be sustained in the audit, or later in the appeals and tax court process. I have a good sense of how IRS auditors work, and why they work the way they do. Presumably, my client has hired me, in part, because of my decade as an attorney for the IRS. There are excellent reasons for us to concede on some of the issues in my client’s case right way; contesting them will both hurt our credibility and lead the auditor to other issues that we don’t want opened. I try to convey that to my client. “I don’t care: fight’ em!” he insists. The client is mad. He wants revenge. I’ve been hired to be his legal pit bull.

Unfortunately, the IRS is one of the least revenge-worthy institutions that exist. Government functionaries show up to do their job at varying levels of competence. They have procedures for every situation. Case law says that tax courts should assume that any government functionary is incompetent, so an IRS employee’s failure to “snap to” does not hurt the government’s legal position. A pit bull does not work well against the government. In fact, when I was at the IRS, I was greatly amused by a taxpayer who fought the IRS’s right to audit him, spent $100,000 in legal fees to thwart our attempts to look at his records, and ended up having to show us everything we had asked for a year earlier anyway.

When facing the IRS, aggression doesn’t work and revenge is meaningless. Do you think a 30-year veteran auditor cares if you fight on every item of the audit? It’s much better to choose battles that can be won in the audit or on appeal, and be quietly and calmly persistent with the IRS and tax courts. In short, the stately, legal Portuguese Water Dog gets much more effective results than the angry, legal pit bull. Please, do us both a favor: if you want a pit bull, go elsewhere. I’m not your dog – er, — man.