Jim Sams has been a tax consulting specialist for over 30 years, with around seven years in the public sector followed by 27 years at KPMG. Now semi-retired, he provides training in US international tax to a range of clients.
How did you get into tax?
I sort of fell into it. I’m a lawyer by training, and after finishing law school I knew I wanted to do something international. I ended up as a clerk for a judge at the US Tax Court. Then from there I went to the IRS Chief Counsel's office in the international division, which at the time was a new subject matter division.
In the Chief Counsel’s office, which has an initial four-year commitment, I started as what they call a Docket Attorney in the international group. Then for two further years, I served in the role of special counsel to the Deputy Chief Counsel. From there I went to the private sector, joining KPMG. And that's where I spent my entire remainder of my career, in different roles and locations.
In government, many people come in from the private sector and sometimes after their period of commitment, or longer, they go back. So there's a lot of cross-fertilisation, which is a positive thing: it's helpful to get the range of experience.
So the individuals gain from that cross-fertilisation, but do the organisations benefit too?
Yes, definitely. From the government perspective, just getting the range of experience that professionals coming from private sector can offer is a benefit. And some of the practicalities of the business side, that somebody who has only been in government might not get to experience.
And then conversely when people go from the public to the private sector, if the company has clients who may not fully understand how the process around the rulemaking works, or the government's approach to a given issue, it can be helpful to have the government-side view in assessing the issues or considerations in a given tax position, and potential approaches to a particular position.
So I think it is helpful. My sense is that there seems to be a lot more back-and-forth in the US than in other jurisdictions. So there may be a question of what's the best balance, but I think there's definitely a very big benefit.
Do you think that most people within those organisations are sufficiently open-minded about what those on ‘the other side of the fence’ can teach them?
Well, I think there's always more to do in that area. But again, given that in the US it is more common to have the back-and-forth, I think that a lot more people are exposed to both sides, or to people that have been on both sides. I think there is a little more understanding.
Certainly when I was in government I would encounter professionals who had a fairly rigid view of what it's like in government. And then similarly from the outside, people's misunderstanding of what government professionals’ outlook might be. But I think that another benefit of that cross-fertilisation is better understanding from both sides. But it’s by no means complete.
Staying with the same employer for nearly 30 years is rather unusual. What do you think is required to do that?
It probably depends on a combination of one’s circumstances (family and other obligations), teaming within the organisation, and market changes or opportunities. For my part, while I was always within KPMG after leaving the government, I really had four different jobs or careers within the organisation, which I think helped served to keep the outlook more ‘fresh’ – not a great word for it, but basically to keep creating new experiences and challenges. And thankfully, the firm saw fit to keep me around or, at least, didn’t see fit to act on its wiser business impulses…. Those various opportunities were in different offices and geographies, each with its own role, market, and technical requirements. Thus, I always felt like I was in a new business environment and working with new people.
What were your roles at KPMG?
A lot of the government hires at the time went into what's called the National Tax Office, so that's where I started, in Washington DC. My client base was more internal than external, working with colleagues in different offices around the US and outside.
Then I moved around from there. I went to our San Francisco business office, was there for almost five years, and then went to the UK, the London office, when the dollar was two to the pound. I got to London and was amazed to find people were saying how cheap New York was! That said, I and my family really loved the experience and the opportunity.
KPMG have mandatory retirement at 60, which is typical across the Big Four – and no complaints from my side! So I retired in 2020, and then actually fell into training kind of the same way I fell into tax. I got a call from Ernst & Young, who were hiring retired tax partners to help teach US tax to their US tax teams based in India. So that got me into part-time training, albeit in virtual format as it began right when the covid shutdowns started. After about one year assisting with the EY program, I then had the opportunity to work with my former group at KPMG (US), which has continued. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some one-off tax training lectures at local universities. I really enjoy all of it, and I find that it's a nice balance. It's a good way to keep up with some of the technical changes, and to work with younger professionals, and help them along in their career. But also to have time to relax, and spend more time with my wife and family.
I'm happy in retirement, and I'm also happy that I found this new niche in training. I like that it gives me opportunity to work with younger people and assist them. So I’m always happy to take on focused, limited opportunities around training, lecturing, and so on.
What do you think are the most significant changes that you’ve seen over your career?
When I joined IRS in 1987 it was just after what was then the largest ever tax update since 1954. Effectively, it was a new tax code, which considerably revamped many of the core international provisions.
The way the US process works is initially through legislation, but then the bulk of the guidance is issued in the form of regulations, and that falls on the Treasury and the IRS. So even a year later there was still a mad scramble to provide regulatory and other forms of guidance around those new provisions in the new regime.
Of course, we also had equally profound changes with the 2017 Tax Act. So it's a full employment opportunity for those looking for careers in tax! For better or worse – and most recently, I think, a lot worse, given the great degree of added complexity that has added its own challenges and compliance concerns. It can become so costly for companies that have even modest non-US activity to satisfy the ever-larger compliance reporting burden. And that’s particularly a problem for those that are struggling or just doing a bit less well economically.
It creates challenges around people's ability to understand the requirements, comply with the requirements and then respond when, say, the IRS comes looking and says, ‘Well, there are missing attributes here and we are proposing additional tax and/or reporting penalties.’
What about the relationship between tax authorities and taxpayers? Is that different now or does it never really change?
I don't think it's fundamentally different. I think there's always a pendulum – a modest pendulum, at least on the US side. I think what we have seen a lot more of, from the tax authorities’ side, is cross-border collaboration. With the EU and OECD in particular, through the so-called BEPS, ATAD, and other ‘collaborative regimes’, if you will.
It’s the same on the taxpayers’ side. There’s greater appreciation of the need for consistency of reporting across a global group, and hence more desire to ensure closer collaboration internally: to work more closely internationally and to have a better understanding of the impacts not just on your own jurisdiction’s regime but also the knock-on effects. Whether it's Asia, Europe, South America, Africa…
Have you had any influential role models in your career?
Yes, definitely, and throughout. From the judge I worked with at Tax Court who got me into Tax, and also gave me a lot of guidance around writing and expression, to the partner I was working with when I started at KPMG (who had actually been involved in working on the legislative side in the drafting of the 1954 tax code), and to other (both older and younger) professionals with whom I’ve worked. Many people have been helpful in providing guidance and advice, whether it's on the technical side, or your career path, helping young professionals, or working with our broad range of clients. All the usual soft and hard skills that are necessary in your career.
There are two different sorts of learning aren’t there? There’s understanding new facts and advice, but then there’s also the ‘osmosis learning’ where at the time you don't really notice that you're learning at all.
Yes. And when you think about today's office environment, with covid and people working remotely, I think that the osmosis issue is a big one because people – notably, the new hires and other young professionals – aren’t getting the collaboration and friendships that arise from being with someone on the same floor day-to-day. And just hearing the side chatter, even if it's not something you're working on. A year or two later, you see things better. Or differently. And it's all through that process of osmosis.
Looking back on your career, what achievement are you most proud of?
We're not brain surgeons or heart surgeons, so I can’t say that I’ve saved anybody's life. What I would hope for is that I was a good ethical role model for the people I worked with, and that I helped people develop professionally and advance in their careers, whether at KPMG or those who went on to other paths. So there have been a few people I can look at and hopefully I can say that I was helpful in giving them some guidance and opportunities.
What would be your ideal job if you hadn't gone into tax and transfer pricing?
I don't know, because I really enjoyed what I did: not just in terms of the roles I've had, but also because we were able to move around. Living in different places, getting that experience, the kids getting the experience. And the technical challenge always made it academically interesting. As I've said, though, we're not saving lives, and certainly, especially in today's world with all the issues, I could think about doing a career that was helpful in other ways. There are NGOs that I've been involved with, for example.
But there are always trade-offs, because those roles are not as well compensated. You want to put your kids through school! I've been very fortunate with the opportunities I've had. And, as an introvert and nerd, I’m probably best suited to my role.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
‘Introvert and nerd’! Hopefully easygoing, but reserved. And technical, nerdy, whatever.
What actor should play you in the film of your life story?
Definitely Tom Cruise! Gosh, I can think of some actors but I'm just crummy with names.
Maybe John Turturro?
Actually, it's funny you say that, because my sister the other night actually said exactly that. He's certainly an actor I admire, so I would be quite flattered. More in the style of his calmer roles, rather than the violent maniacs!
Who would be the guests at your dream dinner party?
One is a real person that we knew: a guy named Clovis Maksoud, who had many roles in his life, including as Arab League ambassador to the UN, an ambassador to India, and a professor at the American University here in DC. He just had such a fascinating life. He was articulate, eloquent, and had such a range of great stories to tell.
And Mel Brooks. I don't know what he'd be like personally, but my humour ranges to the sophomoric, so I've always loved his movies.
And then I've always loved everything involving – separately or together – Fry and Laurie. So I’d invite them too.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don't be such a screw-up! Patience is always good. And make sure you listen to people adequately and respond appropriately. And all the other things you'd want to say: always stay ethical, don't compromise on values, and so on.
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