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Taking On Tax Controversy

Kevan McLaughlin’s Tax Controversy Practice Allows Individuals and Businesses to Go Toe-To-Toe with the IRS, California Tax Agencies and the U.S. Tax Court

“I practice in a very specialized area: defending taxpayers and resolving tax disputes. Our niche is civil and criminal tax litigation and controversies. We represent taxpayers during audits, administrative appeal, litigation before the U.S. Tax Court and criminal tax investigations,” says Kevan McLaughlin, Founder of McLaughlin Legal. However, he admits that he never really planned on a career in tax law, and instead always planned to have a career in federal law enforcement.
“I thought I wanted to go into the FBI. I met with a recruiter who said that agents either needed to be CPAs or attorneys. I chose the latter,” he says. McLaughlin eventually honed in on tax law and saw that there were three main areas he could choose as his specialty. “There’s planning, compliance and reactionary areas of tax law. I had a romantic notion of standing at the podium and advocating for clients as opposed to being in a board room drawing up tax plans. That led me to choose the reactionary field of tax litigation and controversies,” he says.

Grateful for Guidance
McLaughlin embraced his new career decision, and after graduating from Golden Gate University School of Law, decided to pursue his LL.M in Taxation from the University of San Diego School of Law. “I was finishing up my Master of Laws in Taxation degree during a terrible hiring market. Richard Carpenter was a professor of mine at USD. I went to him and asked what he thought I should do, because I wanted to leave my firm at the time and go out on my own someday.
He gave me an unbelievable opportunity to work for him in his private practice. He was kind of a halfway house. He gave me experience and exposure it would have taken decades to learn on my own. Basically, he gave me the means to start my own firm. I was extremely fortunate to find such a fantastic mentor and I will be grateful all my life for what he did for me,” McLaughlin says.

While working towards building his own practice, Kevan began to formulate a couple of guiding principles while at the same time, identified his own weaknesses. “Taking on both the business owner and practitioner roles can be difficult. The two worst qualities to have are hubris and complacency. I saw that finding the right spot between the two is key,” he says. Moreover, he was not in denial about his biggest weaknesses as a new lawyer in the highly specialized field. “Lack of experience and youth were my biggest obstacles,” he says.

Education to Empower
In order to overcome his perceived weaknesses, McLaughlin immediately dove into networking and began establishing himself as an expert by immersing himself in tax controversies and the legal community in general. “I decided that I would try to speak once each quarter and I would publish once each year on tax litigation topics I was experienced and knowledgeable about,” he says. This decision would serve a dual purpose. First, it would enable him to begin reaching clients who by and large didn’t know that they could even challenge tax charges brought against them. Secondly, it would present opportunities for McLaughlin to build a referral pool.
“The reality is that roughly 1% of people are audited each year. It really doesn’t happen often, but there is a perception that you may be audited at any time and you may go to jail, and this perception is a tool the IRS and California tax agencies use to further our voluntary tax compliance system. It’s an intimidating system, and most people don’t know they can fight these charges,” McLaughlin says. As such, McLaughlin began carrying this message to consumers and potential referral sources early on so that if they did find themselves being audited or under investigation, they would know that they have options to fight back.
Continuing, he explains that while civil audits are not as common as many believe, criminal charges are even fewer and far between. “Criminal tax cases mean that an individual willfully committed some act that violates their obligation under the tax laws. But many also don’t realize that a criminal tax case can involve a variety of acts, such as traditional tax fraud, willfully failing to collect, truthfully account for or pay over taxes, willfully failing to file a tax return or submitting fraudulent documents. We hear about these cases, largely because they are intentionally chosen high profile targets such as Wesley Snipes, who is a celebrity, so the media covers it,” he adds.
The second reason McLaughlin dedicated himself to educating others was a strictly business decision. “I take networking very seriously,” he says. As such, he intentionally spoke to audiences of CPAs and fellow attorneys who “may dabble in tax controversy, but don’t include it in their areas of specialization.”

He’s also served as the local secretary and co-chair, and later publication chair of the Young Tax Lawyers of the California State Bar Tax Section and Co-Chair of the San Diego County Bar Association’s Taxation Section. He has presented seminars and lectures for organizations and associations including the San Diego County Bar Association, University of San Diego, the 2013 IRS National Forum, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego and California Society of CPAs. His published articles have also appeared in the Journal of Accountancy and Tax Notes Today.

The education as empowerment strategy has paid off. Within 2 years of practicing in the field of tax controversy and tax litigation, McLaughlin—who has been co-counsel on several published U.S. Tax Court cases on the issues of Civil Fraud, deducting real estate loses and the ‘rescission doctrine’-- was named a 2011 Top Attorney (Tax) by San Diego Metro Magazine. He also began to earn nominations to the San Diego Daily Transcript’s Outstanding Attorney lists and was named a finalist in 2010 and 2013.

Narrow Niche, Wide Open Opportunities
For McLaughlin, just because he works in a highly specialized field doesn’t mean that opportunities are limited. On the contrary he is confident that the future of his firm is laden with opportunities. “The thing that makes me most unique is my concentrated practice area. Even within the specialized field of tax law, not many concentrate on tax litigation and controversy. I am not all things to all clients, but within this concentrated practice area, I am able to provide service equal to any other large firm. I am fiercely competitive and hard working,” he says.
By way of example, in just five years of practice, McLaughlin has worked with the California State Board of Equalization Taxpayer Appeals Assistance Program, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego and the San Diego County Bar Association’s U.S. Tax Court Pro Bono Program. He has also been successful in representing countless individuals and small business owners in tax controversies and litigation. “I have helped defend numerous taxpayers from various tax agencies including the IRS and U.S. Department of Justice, to the tune of millions of dollars in dispute,” McLaughlin says.
As far as the next five years go? “It is our goal for McLaughlin Legal to be synonymous with defending taxpayers in criminal and civil tax controversies. We want to, without a second’s hesitation, be the first thought for the best tax controversy and tax litigation law firm in San Diego.”

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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