In the midst of balancing school strikes, the Glasgow office and its Scottish tax practice, Dentons partner Lorna McCaa takes a short break to discuss her career to date, and the perks of living, and working, north of the border
Born and raised in Scotland, the experienced tax practitioner started off our discussion by talking about where it all began. “At an early stage you decide to stay in Scotland or go elsewhere”, Dentons‘ Lorna McCaa remarks. “I had some contemporaries who stayed, and others who left and headed for London or elsewhere.”
Having joined firm Maclay, Murray & Spens, McCaa recalls having no reason to leave. “I was progressing in line or ahead of the curve and going on a trajectory I was happy with”, she said, “and being close to my friends and family, and having an established life up in Scotland meant I had no reason to want to go anywhere else.” Another significant factor in this decision, McCaa added, was the work she was able to do. “The quality of work was excellent, and I felt very lucky to be able to do the work I was doing, from a Scottish base.”
On her reasoning for pursuing a career in tax, the partner spoke about her early career uncertainty. “Initially, I wasn’t sure whether to be a lawyer or an accountant – I was always very numbers-focused and I love a good spreadsheet! In the end, I decided that I enjoyed the law too much to not be a lawyer, and so went into tax to combine this with my numbers focus and interest. I had almost a natural gravitation towards practising tax, and in the end, it was an obvious decision.”
Since her former firm’s merger with Dentons in 2017, McCaa’s tax work is broader than ever. “I do a lot of Scottish work with Scottish clients across a range of different sectors, food and beverage of course being a big one.” However, she confirms, it’s certainly not only Scottish work that comes across her busy desk.
“Recently, I’ve been working with teams in Amsterdam, New Zealand, and the US on a range of matters, particularly with large clients who are trying to navigate a range of multi-jurisdictional issues.” The experienced partner couldn’t emphasise enough during our interview how broad and varied her practice is. The Glasgow office brings in a more than healthy range of both domestic and international work.
To give a sense of the variety and flexibility on offer, McCaa talked me through her diary for the day. On the roster were corporate, M&A and investment issues, as well as an employment matter, real estate advice, and a private client tax query. Whatever your flavour then, Dentons tax work has it all!
“On top of that, the law is constantly changing and being updated with Finance Acts and budgets every year. You need to be able to keep up with that constantly and know what’s going on all the time. You either like that challenge and part of the job, or it will be too much and too challenging. Really, it’s part and parcel of being a tax lawyer, and you either love or hate it.”
Emphasising this latter point that tax work is fast-paced and challenging, McCaa notes: “We work with clients to navigate our complex tax system to get it right, and not trip ourselves up by solving one issue and accidentally creating another. The vast majority of our clients are looking to minimise the risk of a challenge with a foreign jurisdiction or HMRC over a mistake, and with so many new initiatives at EU level and in different jurisdictions, and more and more differences between the tax systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK, this is only getting more difficult, and exciting.” This growing complexity, the head of Dentons’ Scottish tax practice says cheerfully, keeps every day exciting and interesting, and offers something that both rookies and experienced hands alike can get stuck into.
Towards the tail end of our interview, I asked McCaa to give her elevator pitch for practising at Dentons in Scotland. The first key takeaway, she reaffirmed, is that you can work in a firm which allows you to get work and exposure that is just as good as if you were working in London or elsewhere. There is certainly, in this regard, no sacrifice in the quantity or quality of clients and matters.
A second important factor is that being based in a smaller office and city “I find that the environment is far more friendly, and because of the smaller size you can get to know everyone in the office. Because we’re not in a huge city like London, you can also have more face-to-face meetings with clients, both because the office is easier to access, and because geographically our domestic clients are far less spread out, and so are typically never too far away.”
If you need any further incentive to begin searching the Glaswegian property market and put in an application, McCaa happily told me how after work, within little more than half an hour, she’s able to be in the countryside, or by the beach walking her dog. “Really, for me, you get the best of both worlds. City work, resources and clients, whilst being close to a far more rural surrounding and having a more friendly office environment.”
Even if you get tired of the Scottish weather, or just fancy a change of scenery, one of the benefits of being at Dentons is that there are always opportunities to visit one of the firm’s 180 or so offices around the globe. At the time that I spoke to McCaa, two of her colleagues were abroad in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. So, the global reach of the firm provides not only opportunities for international work at home, but also for global travel and experience.
Rounding off our insightful and entertaining conversation, the upbeat partner offered some words of advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps and take on the challenging tax world. “Being someone’s lawyer, you are a trusted advisor, especially in the tax field. You need to be a little nosy, ask questions to get to the bottom of commercial or personal relationships, and understand exactly what your client is wanting to achieve and why.”
“A lot of the time”, she goes on, “the neat or academic legal solution may not be what the client wants, whatever the reason for that may be, and again this goes back to being nosy and truly understanding the client. In that sense, you need to work out whether you want to do something where you’re truly grasping people’s business and family dynamics and becoming an extension of the business and a trusted advisor, rather than just an expense.”
To reach this stage, McCaa suggests keeping an eye on the wider economy and goings on, making sure you know what’s happening when it happens. Beyond that, however, McCaa’s advice focuses on those who may be put off by the intimidating image attached to tax practice. “Give it a shot. It’s easy to think it’s too difficult, and it can be quite daunting to begin with, but you need to give it a go and be confident in yourself. If you don’t like it, fair enough, it is certainly not for everyone, but don’t be put off or deterred just because it seems scary or daunting.”
Hear from Lorna McCaa at ‘Inside a global law firm — with Dentons’ an IN-PERSON event taking place in Glasgow on Thursday 14 November. Apply now to attend.
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