5 steps to solving complex client problems


Dr Julianne Jacques accepts the Tax Adviser of the Year Award, 2020

Core to every tax professional’s career is the ability to offer clients valuable, expert advice to address their problems - even when those problems are challenging and new. This is a skill you’ll almost certainly need to draw on amidst current legislative and economic changes.

Tax Partner at Johnson Winter & Slattery and The Tax Institute lecturer Andy Milidoni, CTA, has revealed how to solve complex client problems and provide first-class client advice in 5 steps.

One of Andy’s core considerations for tackling complex tax problems is staying on top of legislative developments in the tax field. His top tip is to make sure the processes you have in place to keep up to date with these developments are effective. This will put you in the right position to better serve your client.

“Staying up-to-date with legislative change and being able to advise in a very timely way is something I aspire to and what I think all tax lawyers know they have to do,” says Andy.

Remaining up to date on legislative changes is the core of addressing complex tax problems, but there is more to it than that. Andy has outlined 5 steps to help you improve your approach to client advice.

1. Unpacking the problem

Andy says that when he coaches candidates and junior tax professionals through client problems, it is first about understanding the facts and looking at the tax issues raised with fresh eyes.

“When I take juniors through client scenarios, I show them that, even at Partner-level, we're still unpacking the problem, reviewing it from different perspectives, researching, and testing various solutions,” he explains.

“It's hard to work with tax law and not do that. And whether you're a first-year or third-year, or Partner-level with so many years under your belt, you're still resorting to that process."

“It’s about knowing what the areas of law are, and actually managing all those “balls in the air”. It’s stepping back from a client issue, and not having preconceived ideas about the solution.”

2. Stress-test the facts

Tax professionals are often presented with many different facts that need to be tested before relevant, correct advice can be given. So, it is vital to ensure you have a sound understanding of the situation, especially when the problem is complex or something you’ve never dealt with before. This is one of the key skills Andy teaches in his CTA3 Advisory classes.

“In CTA3 Advisory, students are given quite complex factual problems, with numerous issues,” he says.

“The subject tries to replicate a client walking through the door, with a transaction that they wish to undertake, but with a lot of background and history. All those facts are all relevant to getting to the ultimate outcome.”

“What we take students through is what we do in practice, which includes stress-testing facts, communication, drilling down to ‘do we have everything, what don't we have’.”

3. Review the legislation

Once you have established the facts and tested them, it is about understanding the relationship between those facts and the law. This is where Andy’s emphasis on being up to date on legislation comes into play.

“Tax professionals need to understand what areas of law are involved, making sure that we've reviewed legislation, any case law, any rulings,” he says.

“Our passion comes from problem-solving in the context of legislation and abiding by the rules. The advice we provide needs to work for the Australian Tax Office and for the client.”

4. Applying law to the facts

There is no such thing as one size fits all. Once tax practitioners get on top of law relevant to the facts, they need to begin applying that law to the client’s scenario.

“No client advice is ever really the same and looking at approaching an issue with a very clear mind means stepping back from it and understanding how all the dots get joined together. It’s about seeing where the logic is, and then proceeding on that basis,” Andy explains.

“It’s about asking; does this all stack up? Do I need to know more? What are the tax risks? And really understanding the whole thing from the word go.”

“This enables professionals to ask the right questions, and to make calls on whether or not enough information has been given, and on how the law will apply,” he continues.

5. Writing the advice

At this point, it is time to write the advice addressing your client’s problem. To do that, you need to understand:

  • what should be included and not included
  • the scope of the advice needed
  • what has been asked for in terms of advice
  • assumptions, facts and technical analysis

This vital step is something Andy takes students through in his CTA3 Advisory classes.

“By the end of it, we've come up with a product we can stand behind, that both serves our client and ensures that we've  done our job in the best possible way,” he says.

Although it can seem like a daunting journey to the finished product, Andy says being a bit scared is not a bad thing, because it drives tax practitioners to better themselves.

“Nothing is straightforward. Nowadays in tax, clients do not ask us easy questions. Long gone are those days,” he admits.

“They will only pay for a tax professional’s services for hard problems.”

If you are not as confident as you’d like to be giving complex client advice, don’t worry – you are not alone. The good news is, there is a solution.

“We will not know everything all the time, and we manage that through continuous education, through updating our skills, and keeping our eye on our process, as well as committing to doing it better every time,” Andy says.

Your clients count on you to solve their complex tax problems. When it comes to learning the skills you need to do that, you can count on us.

To find out more about the Graduate Diploma of Applied Tax Law, the Chartered Tax Adviser Program or Tax Agent Program and recognition for prior learning that may apply, please get in touch today. If you’re in need of specialist tax knowledge, you could also build expertise in a specific area such as corporate tax, superannuation or trusts by undertaking a stand-alone subject.