Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Alison Chen has come a long way from childhood jobs in her native Taiwan, which included work in a rice field and shoe factory, experiences that she said have given her valuable perspective to bring to her role as a Big Law partner practicing tax law in Houston.
Chen advises public and private companies on federal income tax aspects of domestic and international transactions, and has significant experience in the energy industry.
She chairs Akin Gump’s women’s initiative efforts, and helps lead its Women’s Resource Group. Chen is also a member of the Houston’s office diversity committee, and the firmwide Asian Firm Resource Group. She speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese.
Bloomberg Law spoke to Chen about anticipating changes to tax legislation under the new administration, the impact working in a factory as a child has had on her career, and how she earned rare praise from a CEO for her tax acumen.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What sets your firm apart from other Big Law firms?
Alison Chen: I joined Akin Gump as a partner in 2015 because of its people and its culture, which promotes collaboration across practices. Our firm management includes men and women leaders from various offices and practice groups as well as from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and that diversity of representation is critical in shaping Akin Gump’s culture and collaborative environment. Further, our firm believes in investing in the next generation of lawyers by providing resources—ranging from business and professional development support to mental and emotional health programs—to help each of us reach our potential both professionally and personally.
BL: What is the biggest challenge currently facing your practice area?
AC: The biggest challenge in my practice area is to anticipate potential tax legislation that may be proposed in the coming months or years under a new administration and to help our clients think ahead. It has always been pretty difficult to make any major tax reform, but when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was passed in late 2017, I remember the frenzy surrounding trying to read over 1,000 pages of the new law, and clients calling in the days and weeks after asking how the TCJA impacted their businesses.
BL: How did your childhood experiences in Taiwan, which included working in a rice field and sewing shoes in a factory, shape you as an individual and as a lawyer?
AC: I often joke that since I once worked under the sun in unbearable heat, any job in an air-conditioned place would be an upgrade. I also find it humorous that Big Law is sometimes described as a sweatshop—having actually worked in a shoe factory sweatshop as a child, I can honestly say, Big Law is much more pleasant. But in all seriousness, my childhood experiences in Taiwan gave me perspective and taught me the value of hard work. I watched my grandparents working tirelessly to provide for their family, and their commitment to excellence made such an impression on me as a child. And the fact that I was part of the workforce even though I was only in elementary school is empowering in some weird way—to be able to contribute to the family enterprise felt so grown-up. Looking back, I realize that those experiences instilled in me the kind of “grittiness” that helped me face all kinds of challenges later in life.
BL: What is your favorite war story from your career/practice?
AC: I was working on a strategic transaction with the CFO and the general counsel of a public company, going over certain critical tax matters. Later on in the transaction, the CEO was interested in hearing about the tax issues that were driving some of the decision-making around the transaction structure. I prepared for the meeting and was on the phone with the CEO, the CFO, the general counsel, and the rest of the Akin Gump team, presenting possible alternative structures and addressing clients’ questions. Afterwards, the general counsel called me and said the CEO walked down to her office and asked who that was on the call—and the general counsel told him, “that’s Alison Chen, she’s a tax partner from Akin Gump.” The general counsel said the CEO asked her to call me to tell me that he was extremely impressed with the way I explained the tax issues and proposed solutions. She added that I should be really proud because having worked with the CEO for many years, she rarely hears him complimenting outside counsel that way, and certainly never a tax lawyer.
BL: What advice would you give an associate just starting out his/her Big Law career?
AC: Be intentional and take charge of your career development by learning from the most experienced lawyers and people you look up to. The only thing that is lockstep in many Big Law firms is baseline associate compensation. You can influence everything else—how fast you learn, what type of work you do, who you work for, what non-billable matters you take on, etc. Always look for opportunities and invest the time in becoming the best in what you do, and it will pay dividends in the future. They call it the “practice of law” for a reason. Keep practicing!