Bozo Tax Tip #2: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Employees (Especially Because We’re Lawyers)

A few years ago, I first heard about the law firm that had no employees. Now, I can imagine a small firm of, say, three or four partners, with no clerical staff as a possibility. However, having dealt with enough attorneys there are always secretaries, paralegals, clerks, and junior lawyers because most clients don’t way to pay $400 an hour for typing.

Joe Kristan (who formerly had the Roth CPA tax update blog) wrote about the Donald Cave Law Firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A few years ago the firm found itself in Tax Court claiming that the three associates of the firm weren’t employees because the owner, Mr. Cave, alleged he didn’t have enough control over them. Now, do you really believe that a senior lawyer at any firm would allow junior attorneys to do their own thing? Of course not, and the Tax Court didn’t believe it either.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. The firm appealed and their fate at the Fifth Circuit was, well, what you would expect.

Finally, with respect to the law clerk, Michael Matthews, the record shows that Donald Cave hired Matthews and exercised complete control over the assignment of Matthews’ work for the Firm. Although Matthews also worked for other lawyers and law firms, providing services to multiple employers does not necessitate treatment as an independent contractor…Matthews was paid a salary by the Cave Law Firm of approximately $1250 every two weeks, which amounts to $30,000 per year, regardless of the amount of work he performed during that time period. Contrary to the Firm’s suggestion, Matthews was not paid a minimal amount for essentially piecework. Instead, he entered into a verbal contract with Donald Cave and the Firm for a fixed sum to provide services at the direction of Cave, and there was no evidence that he could reject any work he did not wish to perform. Furthermore, Matthews could neither increase his profit through his own skill and initiative, nor would he suffer the risk of any losses. Matthews also made no investment in the facilities because the Firm provided him with the amenities needed to complete his work.

Can you really imagine that a clerk at a law firm isn’t an employee? I can’t, and neither could the judges at the Fifth Circuit.

The point of this is to be careful about who you claim are independent contractors. If you give John a research project, and don’t control his activities, and he’s working in another state on his own, that truly sounds like an independent contractor. However, if John’s working in your office, and your supervising his every move, etc., trying to claim he’s an independent contractor when he’s really an employee can lead to a big heartache.

Additionally, some states are far tougher on the independent contractor/employee decision than the IRS. Indeed, my old homestead of California is probably the most difficult state in the country to have independent contractors. California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has an excellent publication on this issue (EDD Publication 38). There’s even a help line you can call.

So if you really have independent contractors, great. But if you’re a law firm and you really, really think that your secretary and the filing clerk are independent contractors you are committing a Bozo act.

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