November 2, 2021
Jinyan Li and Scott Wilkie are tax lawyers with far reach who are both prolific thinkers, writers, and speakers on a wide range of taxation and tax policy subjects. Thankfully, they are also on the faculty at OsgoodePD and function as Professors and Co-Directors of the Professional LLM in Taxation Law.
We sat down together to discuss their thoughts, experiences, and perceptions of both the LLM and the greater tax law field.
Jinyan Li and Scott Wilkie
Academic Directors of Osgoode’s LLM in Taxation Law
You have both had very successful careers in the tax law field.
How would you advise those who are at an earlier stage in their lives and careers, thinking about undertaking the LLM in Tax Law? What kinds of questions should they be asking themselves?
They should be asking themselves why they want to do it. It may seem naïve, but it’s not. They should ask themselves about their genuine interest in the tax system and [their] awareness of its systemic considerations. It’s not theoretical or conceptional – an intense awareness of the tax system has practical applications for advising clients.
[Prospective students] should also ask themselves if they realize what kind of a commitment this is. The degree that is awarded is a Masters degree. It’s not where you come to learn the rudiments of the subject.
[Students] are going to be disappointed if they think they’re going to be taking basic classes. We have expectations that they expand their awareness of informed critical content.
I agree with Scott. What do they want to get out of the program?
The answer may depend on their background: some students are fresh JD/LLB graduates who want to develop a career in tax law; some are practicing tax and want to get better at it, and some others are non-lawyers who have practical accounting or business experience and want to be more proficient in tax law.
Overall, their interest and knowledge in tax law as a system will take them further.
The Income Tax Act (ITA) is not a manual of buffet items. Everything is internally connected like machinery. It’s over 100 years old. People see a fragment of the whole and think they can be good at it without appreciating the inner workings of the thing. That is, of course, is not the case.
We try to help students understand the ITA’s character, value, and spirit. We encourage students to be curious about the role of the system. We teach students how to navigate the system. Students need to figure out and understand the why. Students need to be happy spending 5 hours engaged in thinking!
Can you talk a bit about your experience in the classroom? How do you challenge your students and how would you say they challenge you?
How we challenge students is a challenge for us!
We try to encourage students to think about things. I like to use problems – real law – to get students to pick up the tax law language [and think] about why it is written that way and how it should be interpreted. If we use the foundational course as an example, the idea is to introduce a new language and new way of thinking and to further an important skill: working with a complex statute.
The goal is to develop competence in reading the Act, appreciating its underlying policy, and applying the rules to solving problems.
Students challenge us through their different backgrounds and styles of learning. We strive to bring everyone along, get them equally excited, and give them some concrete learning outcomes at the end of the journey.
We try and tap into their backgrounds – into what they already have – and connect the learning with their experiences. Those are challenges that make teaching interesting and give students a sense of ownership over their learning. It’s challenging but it’s fun.
Even though the LLM is not a how-to vocational program, everything about the law is concerned with equipping people to help other people change their course of action and make judgements about how their own lives should be arranged. So, all objectives of study in the law have to have that responsibility in mind.
The students have somewhat varied but quite relevant backgrounds. They enrich each other’s experiences by providing practical context for their consideration of the issues. They’re quite hungry [to learn]. Both of us try and infuse the courses that we teach with that awareness.
How would you describe the relationship between lawyers and non-legal professionals in the program?
There seems to be very little difference between them in terms of performance in class.
We assign them group work. Sometimes you see the lack of legal training in procedural issues, but by and large there’s very little difference in terms of collaboration or presentation.
Because we’re quite [intentional in our selection of] non-lawyers, they already come with lots of tax experience. Because tax law is statute-based, lawyers [may be] more trained in statutory language, [but] accountants have worked with the rules.
So, they complement each other quite well. I haven’t perceived any issues.
Neither have I.
[Over] the last number of years, applicants have increasingly been better qualified, better motivated, more focused in terms of their objectives, and more serious about the subject. [When administering] the courses, I don’t have any reason to pay attention to [the disparity] in their backgrounds.
If instructors take the time to stand in the shoes of the students, individually, then they can help [the students] tailor their learning opportunities to their capabilities and still meet the overall standards of the program. All our students want to succeed.
When we last connected for our podcast in January 2020, Jinyan, you were keen to see where the next 5 years would take the profession; you were interested to see what the liberal government would do and how it would fundamentally change the tax system.
How has the field evolved since January 2020, in general and in light of Covid?
When I participated in that podcast, Covid had not happened.
The liberal government had the opportunity to do something fundamental, but they lost the majority government, and then Covid happened.
Scott and I have a 3-year research project to look at the fundamental impact of Covid on the system. We hope to investigate the fiscal impact of COVID and develop fiscal antibodies to be ready for future emergency situations. Whoever is in government needs to examine how the system is going to increase the well-being of all Canadians, using the fiscal/tax system as the major instrument.
I don’t think Canada is alone among OECD and non-OECD countries in the manner of its reaction. I don’t think [most] governments have a plan – though they should.
Apparently, firms are busy in spite of special demands imposed upon them through the Covid situation and related programs and public health responses, but I think it’s reasonable to imagine that the landscape for young lawyers has changed irretrievably.
Many of the trappings of big firm professional practice in particular have been shown to be less necessary than assumed, yet these have been a source of psychic professional benefit as badges of professional life.
Firms have discovered that they can be more productive with their employees not in the office the same way. When you take that diorama away from the practice, [young professionals need] to think about how they can make themselves resilient and reliant in a big environment so they can be operate more autonomously and independently… in that kind of environment, but more generally too, often in new collaborative ways that are more functional than social.
Do you have a favourite memory or experience you can share from your time at OsgoodePD?
The first time I co-taught international tax with Scott. The second day, during coffee break, one of the students who took tax with me in the JD program at Osgoode who had gone on to become a successful lawyer, came to me and said, “Professor Li, I just realized that Scott Wilkie is the Einstein in tax.” This was after Scott drew a diagram and explained the architecture and design of the international tax system, using circle after circle after circle…”
When I started (co-teaching) with Neil Brooks in ‘87, I realized [we were approaching] a particularly difficult portion of the course. But, Neil had the expertise. I thought, “I’m home free, I can just listen to him go forth.” Then, Neil says, “We’re going to talk about the foreign affiliate system and Scott is going to do it.” I had 2 hours to fill before me.
Be prepared! But, enjoy the moment and enjoy the subject, and be flexible and resilient!
Want to know more about the Professional LLM in Taxation Law? Sign up for an Information Session!