Some corporate tax professionals seem destined to wind up doing something in tax law. For Sonja Schiller, that certainly seems to have been the case. “I’ve always loved economics, math, and writing,” she explains. “My tax law practice, which is heavily focused on transfer pricing and cross-border tax issues, fortunately presents a natural intersection of all three. Plus, I get to work not only with lawyers, but with economists and accountants, so the work is multidisciplinary and more engaging to me for that reason.”
Schiller, now tax counsel at Microsoft Corporation, says that tax law also presents the added complexities of navigating a statute- and regulation-based, agency-driven body of law with federal court and Tax Court case law. “In my international practice,” Schiller says, “treaties and policies adopted by intergovernmental organizations make the practice even more interesting.”
Managing Global Tax Audits and Litigation
Schiller enjoys working at Microsoft. “Managing global tax audits and litigation at one of the world’s largest technology companies presents complex tax issues that truly deserve full consideration not only in the current domestic and international tax landscape but also in the potential future landscape informed by the legislative and policy considerations that could influence it,” she says. “I feel incredibly grateful to wake up each day to interesting work in a fast-changing, complex environment, but, more important, to collaborate with brilliant, kind colleagues that make that work worthwhile.
“Within a given month,” she explains, “I am traveling around the world to meet with tax authorities and with Microsoft’s local tax, finance, and legal departments. Microsoft operates in over 190 countries, so that naturally means working with colleagues who speak numerous languages and come from diverse backgrounds. I cherish that and truly honor the varied perspectives that naturally result. Every expectation I had in coming to Microsoft has been surpassed—the quality of the work and the caliber of the people was what drew me, and it is what has kept (and impressed) me.”
“I am traveling around the world to meet with tax authorities and with Microsoft’s local tax, finance, and legal departments. Microsoft operates in over 190 countries, so that naturally means working with colleagues who speak numerous languages and come from diverse backgrounds.”
Previous Law Firm Work
What is the knottiest tax law problem Schiller has encountered since coming to Microsoft? No specific issue stands out to her as having been particularly challenging. However, she says, “the greatest learning curve for me coming from private practice to an organization as large and far-reaching as Microsoft is the need to coordinate cross-function to be effective—in my case, generally across not only tax, but also Treasury, accounting, finance, legal, and the business.”
Previously, she adds, her practice at a law firm was concentrated solely on providing legal analysis and advice. “I didn’t have to consider the importance of coordinating among or obtaining buy-in from a broader set of stakeholders or the incentive of the business in doing so,” she explains.
What did Schiller learn from working at Baker & McKenzie LLP and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom before coming to Microsoft? “At both firms,” she notes, “I was able to work with some of the greatest tax attorneys and litigators, who shaped my early career. I think that period is so critical as a springboard into whatever one subsequently does, and I feel very fortunate to have learned so much about client service and the practice of law from some of the best in the field.”
Schiller says the recent tax reform legislation has made her work more interesting. “It has added another layer of rules that has entirely or partially displaced the preceding regime. From a practical perspective, of course, some of the lack of clarity around implementation has created some confusion,” she explains.
TEI can play a critical role in developing tax leaders, Schiller says: “TEI provides a unique forum for in-house professionals to continue to grow their tax knowledge and network outside of a sponsored setting affiliated with a specific service provider or another outside organization. I think that offering is invaluable and provides in-house professionals the ability to better focus on issues of interest to them, their colleagues, and their employers. This is the primary value-add of TEI that will continue to recruit and retain members of all ages.”
When not focused on tax issues, Schiller enjoys a wide variety of activities, including hiking, yoga, cooking, holistic medicine, travel, and wine tasting.