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Can you ‘explain it to Charlie?’

May 25, 2014

I am lucky that twenty seven years of practising tax, out of my thirty year career, and I still love it as much as I first did: perhaps even more so, or maybe just differently. I always wondered, when I was training, how the then partners could know so much, since the law changed every year and sometimes even more frequently. Now I know that every practitioner is in an endless race of keeping up to date, but knowing something once is a good foundation for understanding its new version, and the next version, and then the alteration. It is hard, but that is what makes it fascinating.

So, for part of today, a wet bank holiday Sunday in the Lakes, I have been engrossed in reading for the third time the recent case of Acornwood LLP and others, better known as Icebreaker 2, better known as 'the Gary Barlow case'; and then reading the latest issue of Tax Journal, one of the two publications I have read throughout my career (or, in the case of Tax Journal, since it started).

One article I always read is the back page one, 'One minute with', when someone eminent in tax answers half or dozen or so questions about themselves and tax; and this week, it is the turn of Patrick Way QC, one of the Counsel I have instructed on occasion over the years, have heard him talk, and generally liked.

I like his answer to the question: what's a key question you've learnt from your career to date?

…to understand a concept, you have to express it precisely, otherwise you have failed to grasp it. ….You must be able to argue your point clearly and exactly otherwise you have not made the point at all and you need to understand tax law absolutely and explain it cogently for the same reasons. Patrick goes on to say, and I can see him saying this: However, despite this rather pretentious answe, one should never forget that whatever happens on a day to day basis, the world carries on spinning. Keep smiling.

My version of Patrick's first point has two aspects. Firstly, I have lost count of the number of internal talks I have given at my firm- in my twenties, I started doing this following a Dale Carnegie course I did, as a way to manage shyness/diffidence, and I quickly learnt that the threat of having to present a topic was a brilliant way of having to learn it. And secondly, if I can't explain something so that Charlie, our cavalier King Charles Spaniel can understand it, then I haven't understood it myself.

Top of King's How, looking down into Borrowdale at Rosthwaite

I could explain Acornwood to Charlie.


Patrick's point is right, and useful to remember, to guard against fuzzy thinking.


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