Written by: Nicole Black
Tax law is her passion
Kelly Phillips Erb, a Philadelphia-based tax attorney, never intended to be a tax lawyer. In fact, she actually planned to avoid tax law classes in law school, but sometimes, as Kelly explains, the best laid plans go astray: “I swore that I would never take a tax course, but I had a terrible moot court experience and ran to sign up for a transactional course so I could stay away from trial practice. I had a transactional professor whom I just loved, so I took more of her classes and most of them just happened to be tax law courses.”
Although to you and I, tax law may seem a bit dry, to Kelly, it’s a fascinating area of practice and a fulfilling way to help people during a stressful time in their lives:
“The interesting thing is that you can’t walk through any moment of your day and not somehow have it touched by tax. Whether it’s sales tax or income tax. I find this fascinating. Tax is all around us, but nobody talks about it. People don’t understand the tax law because it is so confusing; it’s difficult to sort through and understand the nuances. I have the opportunity to talk people down from ledges and explain things to them in a way that they can understand.”
First and foremost, follow your own path
For Kelly, life as a partner in a small firm is a perfect fit. She gave BigLaw a chance, but it turned out it wasn’t all she thought it’d be: “I thought I’d be handling sophisticated matters but found it wasn’t true. It was limiting; I didn’t get to interact with clients and I spent a lot of time trying to make partners happy. I worried more about the firm’s structure than work.”
After giving BigLaw a fair shake, Kelly decided to strike out on her own. She convinced her husband, Chris, a lawyer with a focus on International Law, to leave his position with a large law firm and start a firm with her. In 2000, their firm, The Erb Law Firm, PC, was born.
She has no regrets: “I like my small firm. It has my name, my images and I care about the work that I do. My only regret is that I wish I’d done it sooner--that someone had given me the confidence boost I needed and said you can do this, don’t worry what people think.”
A 21st century law firm with an international reach
Kelly’s firm, with just five attorneys, may be small, but it relies on innovation and cutting-edge technology to serve clients worldwide. The firm utilizes cloud computing tools for calendaring and billing, in addition to web conferencing and Skype calls to communicate with clients on the other side of the globe.
However, according to Kelly, the firm uses different technologies depending on the situation, since different clients have different needs:
“Our firm is a mix of traditional and cloud computing. We don’t do everything online. Almost all of our international and corporate clients prefer to use web conferencing because it’s economical and efficient. They like getting files digitally because it’s quicker and easier. However, some clients, even sophisticated ones like my tax clients, need hand holding, and empathy is difficult to relay over the phone. Clients who need to be talked off a cliff because they are losing their home from a lien--they want to see me or hear me. But, that being said, the majority of clients have no problem receiving document drafts via Skype or email.”
Some attorneys in their firm also telecommute, to the extent that their practice allows it: “One attorney telecommutes all the time and my husband and I sometimes work from home. For example, when he calls Germany, because of the time difference, it’s 5 in the morning here, so he makes calls from home.”
Expanding her reach using social media
You may not realize it, but Kelly isn’t just a lawyer. She’s also somewhat of a celebrity in online legal circles, where she is known as “Taxgirl.” On Twitter she is @taxgirl and has nearly 14,000 followers. Her Facebook page has 1,444 fans.
She also has a blog that she started in 2005, TaxGirl, which focuses on tax law issues and is now syndicated by Forbes.
For Kelly, social media is an enjoyable way to share her ideas and expand her reach. As she explains, she interacts on social media platforms because doing so provides her with a sense of connection and community: “For me, moving to social media from blogging was a natural transition, since I could use Facebook and Twitter to promote my blog. But it’s also real interaction between professionals. You can be in a small firm and still feel that you’re part of a big firm because you can post and get a nearly instantaneous response on Twitter.”
When asked if she obtains clients from her social media participation, she laughs, noting that while it’s difficult to gauge where clients come from, social media can sometimes be helpful:
“It’s rare that you’ll have a lot of people with tax law issues looking for tax attorneys on Twitter. Yes, I’ve gotten some clients from Twitter, but many more have come from my blog. I think it’s because my writing style makes me seem like a real person, not just a picture on a website. It’s not the content, but because I seem approachable. Tax law is scary, but people think: ‘She has kids and she’s a mom.’ So, they feel better about approaching me and feel like they can better relate to me.”
But, as Kelly explains, at the end of the day, social media isn’t about marketing--it’s about interacting and sharing with your network: “Networks--they all build on each other. I do consider my time spent on social media valuable but it’s a tough balance. I try to avoid using it as a selling tool and instead focus on building relationships. That’s where you find the real benefits.”