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Spotlight Series: Carving Your Path in Transfer Pricing
Episode 1619th April 2023 • GILTI Conscience • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
00:00:00 00:29:27

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Though many opportunities exist for students interested in a career in tax law, there has been no clear environment for cultivating talent in the area of transfer pricing. Now, an ABA program offers up-and-coming professionals the opportunity to learn directly from leaders in this niche field.  

Launched in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, “Transfer Pricing: From Classroom to Boardroom” (TP C2B) seeks to provide students interested in pursuing transfer pricing careers with a multi-disciplinary “insider” look into how transfer pricing policies are designed and administered. With the help of mentors and enthusiastic volunteers, the program culminates in a capstone project at the end of each year-long session. 

Co-founders Elizabeth Stevens and Niraja Srinivasan joined the “GILTI Conscience” podcast to discuss why they started the program, how it has evolved and potential opportunities for expansion. 

Interested in volunteering? TP C2B is seeking mentors from all backgrounds who can help organize the capstone and take on other duties to help mentor the next generation of transfer pricing professionals. Send an email to abatpmentoring@gmail.com to see how you can get involved. 

💡 Featured Guests 💡

Name: Elizabeth Stevens

What she does: Elizabeth is an international tax attorney, experienced in international tax planning and advocacy for multinational corporations. She is the former chair of the ABA Transfer Pricing Committee and co-founder of TP C2B. 

Organization: Caplin & Drysdale  

Connect: LinkedIn

Name: Niraja Srinivasan

What she does: Niraja assists law firms, multinational companies and tax authorities with expert economic analysis to resolve transfer pricing disputes. She has 25 years of corporate and consulting leadership experience and is the current chair of the ABA Transfer Pricing Committee. 

Organization: NERA

Connect: LinkedIn

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GILTI Conscience is a podcast by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Affiliates. Skadden’s tax team is recognized globally for providing clients with creative and innovative solutions to their most pressing transactional, planning, and controversy challenges. The insights and views presented in GILTI Conscience are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. The information presented is not a substitute for consulting with an attorney, nor does tuning into this podcast constitute an attorney-client relationship of any kind.

Transcripts

Voiceover (:

This is GILTI Conscience. Casual discussions on transfer pricing, tax treaties and related topics, a podcast from Skadden that invites thought leaders and industry experts to discuss pressing transfer pricing issues, international tax reform efforts and tax administration trends. We also dig into the innovative approaches companies are using to navigate the international tax environment and address the obligation everyone loves to hate. Now your hosts, Skadden Partners' David Farhat and Nate Carden.

Nate Carden (:

Hi everybody. Welcome back to GILTI Conscience. As always. Nate Carden here with David Farhat, Eman Cuyler, Stefane Victor. Today we're joined by Liz Stevens from Caplin and Niraja Srinivasan from NERA, who are going to talk to us about a really interesting program to develop new transfer pricing professionals because those of us who have been doing it for a while want to get out and we need people to take our place. Eman, you did this. So why don't you start us off. Tell us about it and what you did.

Eman Cuyler (:

Sure. First, both of you, thank you so much for joining us. I'm always excited to have conversation about mentorship and leadership and this is the perfect forum to do that. So in the fall of 2020, you two launched the ABA's transfer pricing from classroom to boardroom mentorship program with the goal to pair law students and students in finance that are interested in a career in transfer pricing with in-house corporate leaders who are leaders in transfer pricing. And in my opinion, this is first of its kind and a major contribution to the profession for two reasons.

(:

One, oftentimes when we think about mentoring law students, especially students interested in tax, we think about law firms, accounting firms, but we never think about that insider view of what multinationals care about, how they operate their priorities. And I think this does that. And second, it gives these leaders who are transfer pricing experts and opportunity to share their wisdom. With that, can you tell us why you started this program and just the goals of the program as well?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

So we started the program because it was the middle of the pandemic and what else were we going to do with our time? But as I... Mentorship very has always been very meaningful to me. I feel like I've benefited from it hugely in my career and in my life. And so it's something that I think is meaningful and that I want to support. So the year that I was chair of the transfer pricing committee, I thought, well, let's try to start some sort of mentorship program. And yet , transfer pricing is niche. So getting a law student interested in tax is one thing, getting a law student interested in transfer pricing is on another level.

(:

But what if we could get people who are second or 2Ls or 3Ls or LLM students and match them up with somebody who is living transfer pricing day-to-day as a mentor? And not just someone, as you said, Eman, from a law firm or an accounting firm or someone who's an advisor like us, but someone who's the actual client and give them the perspective of the user of transfer pricing and give them an opportunity to develop a relationship.

(:

So that's sort of conceptually where I started. And I had attended a conference in Dallas of all places in November, I think the previous year, right before the pandemic. And I heard Niraja speak on mentorship and team building within her company. So I thought, who better to work on this? And I called her up and I'm passing her the baton right now, let her give her side of story.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

And I just have to complete that whip in the rest of history. But I was really thrilled and really honored when Liz called me and said, look, we're doing this program and we'd like to pair up law students, and I'm not a lawyer, so mea culpa right here. But I'm just pairing up law students with in-house transfer pricing leaders. And I was at Dell at that point in time, and subsequently I went to NERA. So I was living the in-house life and I'd never seen a law student come and ask me questions. Perhaps once in a while, a LinkedIn ping or something like that. So it is a very intriguing combination to me. Would it work? How do you make it work? How do you give the students something that isn't just too operational, too nitty-gritty? I mean, they're looking at transfer pricing from books and the real world is a lot different.

(:

So would the corporate in-house team be able to really impart something that was interesting and intriguing and would get law students interested in transfer pricing as a profession? Now we have a new generation of transfer pricing practitioners who are going out into the world. So I loved Liz's idea. I thought it was fabulous. And so we, pioneer women decided, okay, let's give this a shot. Let's do a pilot program, let's get it going and see how it would work and how we scale it up. So it was a terrific opportunity and like Liz said, mentoring was hugely important to me all my life. Couldn't have done it without her.

David Farhat (:

So how did it start out? What were the first couple of steps you guys took to get it going and how has it been going?

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Yeah, well, I think the first couple of steps should have been lots of glasses of wine, but it was in the middle of the pandemic and we were not about to do virtual happy hours, but we had... I think Liz, we had tons of discussions, how do we do this? How do we do that? And we went into the details of things. How do you make it work at a cellular level? Because if it didn't work there, it was not going to be this big grand thing. And I think coming out of those discussions step-by-step came, a program deck, a set of instructions, reaching out to law schools, reaching out to potential corporate mentors. And every step yielded progress and some good output. And so we were very encouraged and we took it forward from there.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

We relied on a lot of friends. So Niraja has a lot of contacts in the corporate space, and I had a lot of contacts with law professors around the country, tax professors. And so we kind of both leaned on our contacts to try to source the mentors and the mentees. And we were very fortunate that we had a lot of people who were willing to be generous with their time and their recommendations and generate some enthusiasm. And we had an initial cohort of six students, which we grew into... were we at 12 or 13 last year? We're at nine this year. So we think there's some benefits to keeping it relatively small because the capstone exercise that happens at the end of the one-year program, which we can tell you about that could become unmanageable if we had 50 students.

(:

But we think having a smaller curated program where we can really focus our attention on the mentors and mentees and help them, help support their relationships has made a lot of sense. But I think that this would not have... Niraja and I just got it started, but people like Eman who have been willing to help move heaven and earth to keep it going and really put in a lot of hours and a lot of thought to make it successful.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Absolutely.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

A lot of shared credit.

David Farhat (:

Awesome.

Eman Cuyler (:

Can you just expand a little bit more about the capstone? I know that the pilot year, the case study was the Amazon 2017 case. Last year, we did a competent authority exercise and we're working on the exercise for this year. Can you just touch a little bit about what the exercise is, how we work on that, and all the fun that goes into that?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

I think conceptually, we matched up the mentors and mentees, and we wanted to keep it fairly flexible because we didn't want to impose too many requirements on our mentors. So they're already being generous with their time. So we left the program fairly unstructured, but we wanted there to be at least one touchpoint that everyone was working towards. And that would provide a discussion topic and a basis for interactions between the mentors and the mentees. So the first half of the program is get to know you. And then the second half of the program, we introduced the capstone materials and we also added a teamwork element. Had the mentees work in pairs the first year. They were in teams of four or five last year. So this year, they're in teams of four or five.

(:

So then they not only work together, but also maybe get to have some interaction with one another's mentors. And the exercise at the end, the first year, we had to do it on Zoom. Last year, was hybrid. This year will be hybrid, but we wanted to have a written component. So they do some development and analysis upfront and some prep, but then also a performative component where they are interacting with one another and it's live and we don't know where it's going. And so make it kind of dynamic. So that's high-level concept with the capstone. But Niraja, do you want to talk about what we're doing this year?

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Oh yeah, absolutely. Every year just becomes... We raise the bar on the fun element, and so I worry about the next year. But this year, we're doing a mock mini-trial or a mini mock trial, however you want to think about it. And it's basically a US headquartered taxpayer with lots of foreign operations running into a transfer pricing audit for years and years, getting challenged on the amount of profitability in the US by the IRS. And they've written up tons of IDRs, they've gone through appeals and now they're at tax court. And so we've really have, we've got these two teams and each team has lawyers and economists and plaintiff, defendant, if you will, and they are going to pretty much talk about the expert reports. They're going to do a direct and cross-examination of the experts, the economic experts, and maybe a fact witness if we can get that in as well.

(:

So they go back and forth and doing some cross examination. And then we have a jury, which names TBD, but we're working on it. So if anyone's interested in being part of the jury, raise your hands. But we will have a jury that based on the merits of the arguments and positions taken, we'll make the call. So it's a great exercise because the students are going to be showcasing their negotiating strength. This is not about the math, or the theories, or anything. This is about how well they negotiate, how well they cross-examine. So I think it's going to be a very fun exercise and a really good learning opportunity hopefully for all of them.

Eman Cuyler (:

David, you were a judge last year. What was your take?

David Farhat (:

Yeah, I got to be-

Niraja Srinivasan (:

And we're hoping you're coming back this year.

David Farhat (:

Yes, I am coming back. I had a blast last year. I got to be a coach on the competent authority Project as folks who listened to this know competent authority is near and dear to my heart. I got to coach the India team and my only complaint was that I only got to do it for one day. I wish I could have worked with folks a little bit longer. I thought it was an amazing exercise. The mentors and the mentees were absolutely amazing. The enthusiasm they had for the program, bringing these aspects, these practical aspects of transfer pricing to law students and economists and MBA students, which it was just fascinating.

(:

It was something, thinking back to my own law school experience, it's all theory. You don't get to get the hands-on. So I thought that was fun because I got the India competent authority team. We could be little... I could be a little bit of a rascal, which I enjoyed. So yeah, it was a ton of fun. And for the folks listening, please reach out and volunteer to help. Whether you want to be a mentor, whether you want to recommend folks to be a mentee, or if you want to help with the capstone program, I think it's amazing. And honestly, it was a lot of fun.

Nate Carden (:

What kinds of backgrounds do the mentees typically have? What are you looking for?

Niraja Srinivasan (:

I would say right off the bat, Nate, when we send out the application package and we get CVs and cover letters, and then we sift through them and then we do interviews. The things that we're looking for is frankly, enthusiasm, commitment, and hopefully some degree of familiarity with transfer pricing. But the interest to be in international tax and transfer pricing. So that's all we really judge by. And the absolute diversity that we end up getting is amazing. Applicants from schools all over the country, it's all US schools at this point. I don't know, maybe we'll go international, Liz. But right now, we get 45 applications from all across the country. I mean, it's gender diverse, it's diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, as well as points of view. We don't select for that, but it's amazing how it just comes in the door and that tells you a lot about talent. That's where talent is. It's everywhere.

Stefane Victor (:

Can you talk a little bit about cultivating an interest in transfer pricing? How do you do that?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

It's sort of like a disease, you infect people with this love of transfer pricing.

David Farhat (:

That is the best way to put it.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

Yeah, it really is. Unfortunately, it's highly communicable. Like COVID, if you spend a lot of time in proximity to somebody who loves transfer pricing, you tend to catch it. But really, it's a better question for our mentors I think, because somehow, they're achieving that. They're cultivating an interest and an enthusiasm for transfer pricing in the mentees. And as Niraja just said, we try to start with people who have some inkling of what it is and some interest. It's tough if you're a 2L, you won't have taken a transfer pricing class.

(:

You may have heard of transfer pricing, but rarely do they have much in the way of background. But we've had quite a few of our mentees conclude the program and go and take jobs in transfer pricing. Many of them here in the DC area. Pretty impressive jobs. We were just talking the other day about one of our current mentees I think is looking at three different offers all in transfer pricing. So that's, I think proof that the infection is spreading and our program has been successful.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

I will add to that, not on the disease portion of it here, but I will add that many of our mentors are now in a position to offer jobs to the students that they're coaching. And we're talking about Fortune 50, Fortune 100 companies where there's a lot of complexity. And I think it's a great breeding ground for somebody who wants to do transfer pricing. So again, thanks to mentors who are excited about the program and saying, well, why do I need to go and look elsewhere? I've got the perfect candidate right here. So that's an added benefit.

Eman Cuyler (:

Yeah. Major shout out to the mentors because I feel like a lot of our mentors are high-level leaders in their respective field and they're willing to freely give their time, which they barely have. So thank you so much for dedicating some of your time with this program. Another question for both of you. Liz, I know you were the past transfer pricing chair for the ABA's transfer pricing section. Niraja, you're the current chair. Can you just talk a little bit about the ABA, your involvement, and how you got started in the tax section?

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Okay, perhaps I'll go first because I have the shortest history. As a non-lawyer, it was quite a thrill. It is a thrill to be included in the transfer pricing committee in a role that I can serve. So I really honestly heard of ABA, I was in corporate life, I heard of the ABA through Liz and the ABA panels that I participated in. I wasn't even a member when Liz said, "How about that mentoring thing, huh?" And I said, wow, I better become a member. How am I going to get this paid for? Okay, yes, everybody should be mentors and members. So that's how I got into the ABA with Liz saying, look, there's some interesting work, do you want to join? And that's how I joined. And I've only been here three years.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

So I became involved with the tax section. I was infected with a love of transfer pricing during my LLM program at NYU, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. So while I've been clerking in DC at the tax court and took the day to come over to the May meeting that they have here in DC every year for the tax section. And I saw on the program, that there was a business meeting for the transfer pricing committee. And I thought, oh wow, that's cool. I should show up to that. So I went to the business meeting and met all these people who were involved with transfer pricing, and they don't often get new blood that just shows up at the business meetings. So they're like, wow, what have we here? We should get this person involved. And it proved to be a really good platform to develop a network in transfer pricing.

(:

And I've continued to be involved with the ABA in different roles. And I feel like the tax section is a trade organization on one level, but it also has a bigger mission in terms of enhancing the profession, increasing diversity within the profession, and being a voice that the IRS and Treasury can look to that is not... If we write comment letters, we're not just speaking on behalf of individual clients. We're really trying to give you an objective view of effective tax administration and what is administrable in the real world. And so I value being a part of and being able to contribute to an organization like that because I think it makes the tax world a better place.

David Farhat (:

To that point, for all the younger tax professionals or students listening to this, get involved with the ABA, the tax section and come to the transfer pricing committee meetings. If for nothing else, you're going to meet a lot of people that are enthusiastic about the subject matter and a lot of people that are enthusiastic about mentorship. And I can tell you from my career, I wouldn't be where I am without the mentors and it's good showing up. And I love the story you tell, Liz, you just showed up white and everyone's like, hey, new person and kind of took care of you. Go in there and get some of that love and some of that attention and get some of that guidance. I think it's really important. So for the professionals, show up so you can find young people. For the young people, go and you'll meet the folks that are there that are waiting eagerly for you to show up.

Eman Cuyler (:

David, to your point, the way I got involved with this program was I think I attended a random TP meeting and Liz was talking about the program and I just randomly emailed them. I'm like, "Hey, this sounds interesting, how can I help?" They got back to me very quickly and it was history from there.

David Farhat (:

Most definitely, get involved. These things are a lot of fun. Once you catch the transfer pricing bug, it'll be fun. People will judge you, but that's fine. It's okay.

Stefane Victor (:

Little known fact about being in tax, there's love and community.

David Farhat (:

Yes.

Nate Carden (:

As you know, we're trying to reach a broad global audience here. Is there a role for non-Americans?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

That's something we've talked about, Nate, because we have some contacts at non-US law schools and have been interested in getting them involved. And we have clients who have transfer pricing people based outside the US who we'd love to get involved if they're keen to be mentors. So I think the short answer is yes, there is a place. I think that we've tried working out some of the logistics because we are to some extent driven by the ABA's fiscal year and working toward the May meeting. And when US law schools and LLM programs and MBA programs and academic programs... Our academic year runs roughly August to May. So that's kind of how we've scheduled the program. If the stars align with non-US mentees who could flow into that, and if we could find them a mentor who's sort of in their time zone, we'd love to make that work.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

I will say that there exists an opportunity with the IBA or the IFA and builds on the success of this ABA a program as perhaps a template or a starting point to think about how do you propagate this elsewhere. Now, it could be in partnership with the ABA, which is what we're hoping to do, but there aren't a lot of programs, maybe none, that actually match up law students and corporate leaders in transfer pricing. So this is really unique. And it has garnered a lot of interest. So expansion is in the works, which just need to figure out how exactly that's happening.

David Farhat (:

So for those of us who are listening and are interested in participating, how do you envision the role for volunteers? I know that we have the mentors and the mentees, but for those of us, you mentioned the jury, what would be those roles and how can folks contact you guys to get involved?

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Contacting is easy, David, and we can certainly post our Gmail, abatpmentoring@gmail.com into this chat or elsewhere and we can certainly make that available. But in terms of volunteers, I'll start it off and Liz, I know we can add any number of things. But the immediate lift is taking some of the sweat equity out of this. I mean, there's a lot of work putting a capstone together, for instance, hours burned and they're quality hours because the product has to be interesting and fun, not just thrown together. So if volunteers want to come forward and help us create a capstone with the deck, maybe some of the math, rehearsing the different roles, helping us design it, spend five to 10 hours on it, that would be incredibly helpful. I mean, that's one clear place for a volunteer.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

Yeah, I think I would add I think a lot of that legwork we've done so that we could push out the assignment to the mentees this year. But we would love to enlist people now who are willing to commit to help with the next capstone, and start thinking about it and come up with something really interesting and sophisticated and challenging for our next year's mentees. But for this year, David, I think we're looking at having coaches for our IRS and taxpayer teams. We were originally looking for some TP litigators who have an eye to mentorship and coaching. And I think now we're looking a little more broadly, so getting some folks who can coach the IRS and the taxpayer teams along the way.

(:

And then as Nira just said, we'll have our panel who will give some comments and feedback to the students at the end of the trial. But if nothing else, show up and just cheer them on. This will be in... It's in hybrid format, so you can join by Zoom or you can come into the room and meet some of these students because they are so impressive. As you will recall, David, the young woman last year when you said, "Maybe you do this even better than I do." She said, "Well then maybe you should hire me." So come and look. If you have holes at your firm that you need to fill, look no further because they are a sharp group.

Nate Carden (:

I do wonder, would you start to then look to a more international kind of capstone project as you move forward, just as folks out there are thinking of ideas? Seems to me like there's a lot of interesting things going on with the pillars and the interaction between that and transfer pricing. Personally, I think it would be a fantastic idea to have a capstone that involves overlap of transfer pricing and beat. But for those out there that are thinking about this, certainly, ideas welcome. And I think something in particular that starts to bring a global perspective into this from the vantage point that I'm looking at this from somebody who'd both be interested in participating, but also what kinds of talent needs are out there. I think particularly among more junior American lawyers, getting a sense of what's going on in the rest of the world is really critically important. And so, I think an opportunity for people to get exposed to that would be great.

David Farhat (:

No, I completely agree. I know one of the things, and I think, Niraja, we may have talked about this briefly after doing the competent authority one is if you get the volunteers, and I think this would be a really cool thing to do internationally, is take a competent authority and do soup to nuts all the way to arbitration. And maybe even layer in some of the stuff from the pillars and see how that works. And if you have international students, I think that'll be a good one... International students and mentors, it'll be a good one to give perspective and looking at all of that.

(:

So I think there's a lot of fun that can be had with this. And as transfer pricing not only seems to be infectious from person to person, but it seems to be taking over tax worldwide. Everything has a transfer pricing angle to it. Every new tax rule you hear about, there's some transfer pricing piece to it. It's great to start layering on that other stuff to not just show transfer pricing, but this is how transfer pricing interacts with tax and business.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

One thing we could do just to internationalize the program right off the bat, would be to welcome mentors who are in European or Asian-headquartered companies that have a reach into the US because those are huge transfer pricing issues. And I think US LLM students or JD students would welcome that opportunity to see what does the European headquartered multinational do? How do they view risk? What's their risk appetite?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

So if you're listening and you fit that profile, abatpmentoring@gmail.com.

David Farhat (:

We will find you.

Elizabeth Stevens (:

We want you.

Nate Carden (:

Link in the show notes.

David Farhat (:

Yep.

Nate Carden (:

Everybody can find it.

David Farhat (:

Exactly. This has been really awesome. Any thoughts or things we want to make sure we get on the table before we wrap?

Elizabeth Stevens (:

Yeah, I think the only thing I would add, I would second Eman's thank you to our mentors, because obviously, we couldn't do this without anybody who's involved. But I mean, they're really, really a crucial piece and we are so grateful for the time that they devote to the program. And I would also reiterate that Eman is our MVP. She is extraordinary and you are very lucky to have her on your team.

Eman Cuyler (:

Liz, you're too kind. Thank you so much for saying that. I really appreciate it.

Niraja Srinivasan (:

Yeah, I totally second that. And this is when Liz and I can get some sleep and Eman's like, "Well, what about that? We didn't finish that." Wow. Wow. No, that's absolutely true. And I will say to the mentees, potential mentees who are interested in applying for the program, don't wait. Please don't wait till September 29th to get your application in. Apply early. It's a great program. There's no thought required in terms of getting your application in so early is good, and that does increase your chances of getting in the program.

David Farhat (:

Well, with that being said, first of all, Liz, Niraja, Eman, thank you so much for doing this. I think the program's awesome. Big thanks to the mentors, really appreciate you guys getting me involved last year. I had a blast and continue to help however you guys need. But again, thank you so much for doing this. This has been an episode of GILTI Conscience. Thank you.

Voiceover (:

Thank you for joining us for today's episode of GILTI Conscience. If you like what you're hearing, be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast app so you don't miss any future conversations. Skadden's Tax Team is recognized globally for providing clients with creative and innovative solutions to their most pressing transactional planning and controversy challenges. Additional information about Skadden can be found skadden.com.

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