Tax law is a male-dominated profession. Just ask Alyssa Whatley.
“When I first started, I was working in a law firm that was all men, except for me,” Whatley says.
Many of her clients were surprised to be working with a female tax attorney and it wasn’t unusual for them to mistake her for the partner’s assistant.
But her clients were lucky to work with her. She consistently got great results and after years of experience, Whatley has come to believe that there are certain strengths women bring to the table as advocates for their clients.
“Of Course, I’ve Had The Good Fortune To Work With Both Men And Women In This Industry Who Do Excellent Work And Are Leaders In Their Field,” Whatley Adds.
However, She Believes That The Talents And Perspective Women Bring To This Profession Serve Clients Particularly Well.
A More Collaborative Approach
Both men and women can be either collaborative or aggressive. However, during her time at the law firm, Whatley saw many of her male colleagues adopting a combative style when working with IRS agents and found her own, more collaborative tone often achieved better results.
“What many people don’t realize is that most IRS agents are female,” says Whatley. “I’ve seen many tax attorneys approach that relationship by going in aggressively and attempting to intimidate. That often creates a hostile environment where the outcome for the client isn’t ideal.”
Whatley believes that, as a female tax attorney, her gender helps defuse initial resistance among IRS agents and helps them relate to her.
From there, she can build a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
That’s important, because many people also don’t realize how much discretion the IRS agent has when deciding the client’s future.
“In other fields of law, if you have a dispute, you can go in front of a judge—and sometimes a jury,” Whatley says. “In tax law, the IRS agent often has the final say in terms of fees, liens, audits, and collections. There are some situations where your case can be argued in front of a judge, but those are not the norm.”
Often the key to getting a good outcome for a client is to build collaborative relationships with the IRS. Whatley takes this approach, starting with making things as easy as possible for each agent she works with.
“I make sure all the documentation is strictly organized and easy to find, and I always hit my deadlines,” says Whatley. “The IRS agents appreciate that I make their jobs easier.”
A Strong Ability to Empathize
Whatley’s job is frequently to convince the IRS agent to see things from the client’s perspective. That’s more likely when a foundation of mutual trust and respect has been established.
Of course, both men and women have the ability to empathize. But Whatley often encounters issues with her clients that she understands on a deeper level, specifically because of her gendered experience.
“For instance, one of my clients didn’t get her taxes in on time because she had postpartum depression,” Whatley says. “The IRS agent was having a hard time understanding why that condition would interfere with someone’s ability to complete their taxes.”
Based on her own personal knowledge of the issue, Whatley was able to advocate successfully for her client, helping the IRS agent understand how debilitating postpartum depression can be.
An Awareness of the Balance Of Power
There’s often a delicate dynamic between IRS agent, tax attorney, and client. Another aspect of it is that frequently both the attorney and the client earn more money than the IRS agent does.
“Sometimes you’re trying to argue that your client can’t afford to pay a large fine or tax bill, and the IRS agent makes a fraction of the salary your client does,” says Whatley.
In that situation, coming in aggressively to try and push the IRS agent into making a favorable decision can be particularly unhelpful.
It’s very common for clients to feel attacked during this process. What they may not realize is that the IRS agent can feel the same way, especially when the tax attorney’s approach is aggressive.
But that’s not the only similarity.
“Clients who feel embattled have said to me that they don’t believe the IRS agent understands what it’s like to be audited,” Whatley says. “But IRS agents get audited, too—and if there are any negative findings, their job can be on the line.”
So the power balance between attorney, client, and IRS agent can be a fraught one.
Many women, Whatley believes, have to deal with complicated power dynamics in other aspects of their lives as well and may be particularly sensitive to them.
“Ultimately, what the IRS agent wants isn’t to ruin the client’s life,” Whatley adds. “What they want is to resolve your case and then move on to the next one. I try to make that process easy for them—and get the best results for clients along the way.”
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