Offshore uncovered

Offshore uncovered

Haven is a place on Earth...

It’s not all been piña coladas and snorkeling in the Caribbean lately. The Panama Papers and Paradise Papers leaks revealed the web of investments hidden in tax havens and sparked an inevitable witch-hunt in the press against the celebrities using them. The topic may come up in interview, and the critically-minded law student will want more than the sensationalism in the press; we spoke to Michael Rosen-Prinz, a private wealth partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, who explains that there's more to offshore law than avoiding taxes.

As with many areas of law, we’d advise not being seduced by the glamor. “You might not be flying in on a jet at the last minute to close a deal,” Rosen-Prinz laughed, “but the real satisfaction comes from helping people solve their problems.” The challenge that lawyers often face is dealing with the complexity of problems that high net-worth clients tackle in their personal and professional lives, and "their circumstances will often be novel and nobody will have ever dealt with it before. The answer won't be in any textbook.” Having bucket-loads of cash and a high profile means a higher-risk existence for a high net-worth family, which requires greater measures of protection. “You meet people who have enough resources to do anything in the world,” Rosen-Prinz explained, but they they might have to “worry about finding a solution to protect their privacy and physical safety;” this is a very different practice to commercial law.

“There's a lot of time for things to develop when you're asleep.”

The confidential nature of private wealth means that “working for a private family may not make a big headline in the same way as if you perform a huge merger,” but the work is invariably international and fast-paced. “There's a lot of time for things to develop overnight” says Rosen-Prinz, which means the working day “sometimes starts with some dread!” Private wealth sees many areas of law coming into play. “Tax is a big one, but substantive trust law and succession is probably a close second.” Often the clients will vary from “entrepreneurs, private families and substantial family-held businesses,” across multiple industries. A typical problem might be the family “wanting to move their structures or themselves from one jurisdiction to another without adverse consequences.” The opportunity to advise celebrities is enticing, and indeed Rosen-Prinz confirms “some clients are in the entertainment industry,” but in these cases “their business is themselves – that planning gets personal.” These don’t always provide the meatiest cases for a lawyer. “Sometimes clients with the most boring sounding businesses, like manufacturers and commodities investors, can be the most interesting to work with because of all of the exciting legal issues that come up in different jurisdictions.”

Private wealth is a flourishing area of the law. “During the recession, private wealth was one of the few practices that boomed because many private clients weren't unduly affected when the commercial work dried up.” The number of self-made millionaires continues to rise across the globe; “it's an exciting time,” says Rosen-Prinz. This is an area of law well suited to students who are “interested in learning about other cultures and feel comfortable working in an arena where you can never have all the answers.” The learning process is never-ending: “even if you have memorized all of your own country's laws, you're never going to be as familiar with what, for example, Indonesian law and French law has to say on a particular matter.”

Following the Paradise and Panama leaks “it seemed like a lot of people were shamed who shouldn't have been,” believes Rosen-Prinz. Heads of state including Queen Elizabeth were left exposed, corporations like Nike and Apple were heavily criticized, the Icelandic prime minister had to step down, and Shakira, Justin Timberlake and Kiera Knightley all had their affairs scrutinized. The morality of tax avoidance is one question, but we’ve also learnt that personal security is a major concern to high net-worth individuals, and the structures offered by offshore investments provide anonymity. This was the argument Emma Watson gave after accusations of using an offshore fund to buy property in London. “In the US,” begins Rosen-Prinz, “we believe it's your right and freedom to be able to buy your neighbour’s house without them knowing you're the one making the offer so they can't jack up the price.”

To impress at interview you should “show why you're committed to this area” – this advice is universal, we’d add. While you're not expected (nor encouraged) to have close ties to Hollywood or Russian oligarchs, “making connections by joining professional groups” and “getting to know people [working in the field] and hearing what they have to say” will provide useful direction and insight.