Paul Sokolowski happily acknowledges that he’s probably an ‘accidental lawyer’. Unlike many in his profession, a law career wasn’t a long-held dream or ambition – in fact he says he didn’t even think about it.
But, in the early 1990s, while working in the Australian Tax Office, he stumbled across a newspaper advertisement for an information night about studying law at Deakin. By the end of the evening he came away thinking it was something he could do.
Today, Paul is a leading taxation lawyer with Arnold Bloch Leibler, where he advises a range of clients – including high-net-worth individuals and some of Australia's largest family groups and public corporations – on Tax Office compliance activity, rulings and tax dispute resolution.
‘I provide technical, but hopefully understandable, taxation advice on commercial transactions. I regularly act in high-profile and complex tax audits and disputes, and have extensive experience in dealing with the Tax Office on large and complex matters,’ he explains.
Paul graduated with first class honours in law from Deakin in 1997 (and was awarded the Supreme Court Prize) and was able to juggle his work and study commitments by studying off-campus via what was then known as ‘distance’ education. He says the program’s practical emphasis on commercial law provided a solid platform from which to start his career.
‘The law degree at Deakin taught me not only about the law and critical legal thinking but it got me ready to practise as a lawyer. That was the key aspect of the Deakin experience - practical application of commercial law. I was able to “hit the ground running”,’ he says.
After graduating, Paul commenced as an articled clerk at Arnold Bloch Leibler’s tax practice, where he became a senior associate in 1999 before his appointment as partner in 2001.
He says that as a premier Australian commercial law firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler has earned a reputation for its innovative and commercially-focused advice.
‘The firm is regularly involved in some of the most important landmark transactions in the country and assists its clients with their most important or difficult legal matters - when their reputation is at risk, in crisis situations or when embarking on key initiatives.’
In the field of taxation, Paul has been recognised in a number of prominent international law guides and in 2015 was ranked among the leading taxation lawyers in Australia by both Chambers Asia-Pacific and Doyle's Guide, and was recently selected by his peers for inclusion in the Ninth Edition (2017) of The Best Lawyers in Australia in the practice area of Tax Law. He is a sought-after writer and speaker and regularly presents papers at conferences and seminars for tax professionals and accounting organisations.
Keeping up with constant tax law changes and, most importantly, how tax officials administer the law, is one of the major challenges of being a taxation lawyer he observes.
‘At a more general level, the other challenge is to remain adaptable to clients’ expectations. You have to know how society – and the community – changes around you, and remain engaged and flexible while maintaining, as a bedrock, the core principles and ethical standards required of a lawyer.’
Like most professional sectors, the development and use of technology is one of the most obvious changes impacting 21st century legal practice.
And, technology – along with globalisation – is not only changing how lawyers work, says Paul, but it’s changing the type of work they do. For example the shift to digital platforms and outsourcing models is reducing, and sometimes eliminating, the traditional, time-consuming work that usually engages junior lawyers.
‘This is changing how lawyers are trained and how they learn the skills necessary to become successful. It’s also changing the business model, and profitability, for commercial law firms.’
Interestingly however, he believes that technology is not necessarily making the legal workload lighter.
‘We talk about “work/life” balance in almost nostalgic terms now. We tend not to strive to achieve “balance” these days – the emphasis is more on learning (and teaching) how to effectively and healthily manage the inevitable imbalance of working in a modern, globally-connected commercial law firm.’
Around the challenge of finding life’s equilibrium, Paul focuses on time with his spouse and their four children.
‘In my spare time, I also read as much as I can - fiction and non-fiction on a diverse range of topics and genres – but as little on tax as possible!’
Reflecting on almost 20 years’ in the legal profession, he says that while securing a graduate position can now be more challenging, a law degree continues to provide a solid foundation for a range of professional options.
‘Today, law can be viewed as a strong generalist degree, which can open many other career doors in business, management, the public sector and the charitable sector. My advice to anyone considering a law degree is to be prepared to broaden your horizons - and be patient. Like me, you never know where you may end up.’