Enterprising Lawyer: Kelly Phillips Erb
Who are these “enterprising lawyers”? Actually, they are easy to spot. Look for the happier, more engaged lawyers. Deeply invested in the power of the work they do for their clients, they have ample interests beyond the practice of law as well. And they seem to have more energy for getting things done than anyone in the crowd. You probably know one or two—you may even be one yourself! In this interview, we talk with Kelly Phillips Erb, who you may know as Taxgirl at Forbes.com.
Kelly Phillips Erb
The Erb Law Firm, PC, Philadelphia
Temple Law School, J.D., 1997, and LL.M., 1999
Meredith College, B.A., 1993
Why did you want to be a lawyer? As goofy and altruistic as it sounds, I wanted to make a difference. No matter how we might be painted on TV or as the result of some pretty awful commercials, lawyers fix problems, they make things better. That’s what I wanted to do—and what I strive to do every day.
What is the focus of your law practice?
I focus on tax law. Despite a love of numbers, I never intended to practice in tax law. But in law school one day, I found myself sitting in moot court wearing an oversized itchy blue suit. It was a horrible experience. In a desperate attempt to avoid anything like that in the future, I enrolled in a tax course. I loved that course — it was Federal Estate and Gift Tax. I signed up for another tax course. Then I went on to an internship at the attorney division of the Internal Revenue Service. Before I knew it, in addition to my J.D., I had an LL.M. in Taxation. It was all tax from there on out.
What is the “real reason” clients hire you?
Clients generally come my way because I’m approachable. I’m a mom, I work and I have a life outside of my practice. That appeals to clients who are facing real-life difficulties. Clients find it comforting that I’m not judge-y, patronizing or intimidating. That said, they hire me because I’m good at my job.
How did you get the handle “Taxgirl”?
Taxgirl was a moniker that I ended up with in law school. I was a tax geek and it showed. The moniker stuck and I used it in private practice as part of my email address. It was a natural transition to using it for the blog and in social media.
How long have you been blogging for Forbes?
I’ve been blogging on my own site for a number of years now; I’ve been with Forbes for the past two years. I spend a lot of time putting together my posts, especially this time of year. But I don’t consider it time away from my practice. I consider it an addition to my practice. I became a lawyer to help people fix their problems — and I do that with my blog.
Who was your most important mentor and, briefly, what did he or she teach you?
I didn’t have a mentor exactly, but I did have a lot of people I looked up to as I grew up. If I had to choose just one, I’d pick my grandmother. She raised eight children on limited resources with just a few grades of education. She loved her family. She was hardworking and she never gave up—even when she was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took her life. She taught me a number of life lessons but chief among them: Surround yourself with the people and things that you love.
What about practicing law did you learn the hard way?
That people lie. From opposing counsel to witnesses to my own clients, the truth is often hard to find. As someone who wants to see the good in people, that was pretty tough to take. But what I’ve also learned is that while the truth is often hard to find, it exists. Sometimes it just takes a little bit longer to get there.
What is your favorite technology tool?
My laptop. I have a MacBook Air that I can (and do) take nearly everywhere. I can write behind the bleachers while my kids are at soccer practice or on the train heading almost anywhere.
What is your favorite non-technology tool?
My Faber-Castell pen. While I love my computers, there’s something about the feel of a good pen on paper.
How would you describe the location and décor of your office?
For eight years, we had our office in a lovely old Victorian building in Philadelphia. We recently moved to a more traditional space in Chester County right across from the train station. Our style is pretty clean and modern and my office generally represents that style—with occasional artwork from my kids to add personality.
Why would someone describe you as “enterprising”?
I don’t quit. When I make up my mind to do something, I get it done. I might not be the loudest girl in the room but I make myself heard. I might not be the fastest runner but I keep running. I keep trying. Always. That’s a lesson I hope my kids take with them.
What is the first thing you “check” each morning?
Does the coffee pot count? I get up pretty early to review my tax news and think about my blog posts for the day before I get the kiddos ready for school.
Where do you think the practice of law is going?
Technology is making it easier for potential clients to have access to a wealth of information that wasn’t as available before. That’s a good thing. I think that the practice of law is going to have to adapt from simply providing legal services (often without explanation) to more of an advisory role, offering direction. It’s a tough shift for many lawyers who are afraid to give up control, but I see it as more of an opportunity to partner with clients to help them figure out what they need on an ongoing basis as opposed to doing a one-off or occasional legal project.
Where are you going?
I’m extremely lucky to practice law with people I like and respect — including my husband, who decided that maybe it wasn’t so crazy all of those years ago when I convinced him to quit his job at BigLaw and start a law firm with me. I get to choose my clients. I decide which matters to take. I like getting up and going to work every day. I’m not going anywhere — for now. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be adding to my writing repertoire: I have a number of projects in the works.
What are people most surprised to learn about you?
That I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. I think the assumption from most people is that lawyers grew up around other lawyers. I didn’t know any lawyers. I kind of fumbled my way through the whole law school process—from LSATs to applications to choosing courses. But I’m glad I did.
What word do you use altogether too often?
Super. I’m all about superlatives.
What item do you use every single day that you could actually easily do without?
Wow, I’ve thought about this one a lot and I can’t come up with anything. My routine is pretty basic and I try to make the best use of my time and resources.
What three things must you always have in your brief bag, desk drawer or refrigerator?
My Nano, my Droid and my Madeline toy. I’m constantly listening to music, whether I’m running, gardening, blogging or on the train. I keep connected with my Droid. The Madeline doll was given to me years ago by my oldest daughter when I went away for a trip for work—she asked me to hold onto it to remember her by. I’ve kept it in my bag ever since.
Where do you turn when things go really badly?
Tom Jones or Miranda Lambert. Sometimes Airborne Toxic Experiment, Elvis Presley or Beyonce. Music always works for me. I turn it up really loud and go for a run or do a crazy dance. It helps me work out my frustrations so that I can focus on the issues.
What else (if anything) do you think we need to know?
That as much as I want to be known for my talents as a tax lawyer, I understand that there’s a lot more to life than the letters after my name. I have three amazing kids who make me laugh every day and I want them to be proud of me. Perspective is really important.
More about Kelly Phillips Erb
Kelly Phillips Erb is a founding shareholder of the Pennsylvania-based Erb Law Firm, PC, where she focuses on tax law for businesses and families. She writes the popular Taxgirl blog for Forbes.com, which has been recognized as one of the ABA Journal Blawg 100. Kelly has also written about taxes for Reuters, Time and AOL’s WalletPop, and has been tapped for her ability to explain taxes in plain English by Esquire, National Public Radio’s Marketplace, CBS Radio, MarketWatch, Inc., and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Kelly is a mom to three young children, so she can add “dinosaur expert,” “cupcake baker” and “princess dress designer” to her resume. Follow her on Twitter @Taxgirl.