Tax Prep for U.S. Expats: It Can Be a Desert Out There

by Francine Brevetti on September 19, 2011

Being the lone expert in a critical field in foreign country can be a great selling point — and Virginia La Torre Jeker has built a career based on just that. The American lawyer, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, specializes in tax issues for U.S. citizens living abroad. With 10 years of service under her belt, she appears to have cornered the market.

“As far as I know,” she says, “I am the only one in the Gulf region with qualifications as an attorney who specializes in U.S. taxation. It’s a very technical field, especially in the international area.”

La Torre Jeker is a part-time employee of Dubai-based Far East Management Consultants, which counts on her to market her services. She attracts clients by visiting multinational companies, giving speeches, and writing articles. 

When she first moved to Dubai in 2001, La Torre Jeker found it difficult to drum up business. “There was no interest in my expertise in the beginning. I kept hammering at the doors of international corporations (with expatriate staff). Finally, my tenacity paid off, and I am now the go-to person for U.S. tax issues in the Middle East,” she says. Her clients range from individuals who need to file extensions for submitting tax returns to people who need help complying with new federal regulations.

Although being the only tax attorney with U.S. expertise in the region is a big draw, it also means La Torre Jeker doesn’t have any local peers with whom she can hash out issues. “I don’t have someone in the next office to whom I can say, ‘Let’s go to lunch and talk about this.’” So, she turns to colleagues in Hong Kong, where she previously practiced law, and to alumni of UCLA, where she went to law school and edited the law review.

La Torre Jeker also belongs to various specialized groups of international tax practitioners, and she says that being on LinkedIn has been a godsend. “I often post issues or give my two cents on issues other people have posted.”

Another challenge is dealing with issues beyond her expertise. “I love what I do, and occasionally (when a new opportunity comes along) I think, ‘Wow, that’s a great area I could sink my teeth into.’ But before I get into something that I know is beyond my expertise — such as international reorganizations — I’ve had to learn to say ‘no’ or find a specialist I can work with. Even though I am employed, I work in many ways as an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs are frequently tempted to take everything that comes their way.”

This is a dangerous approach, she cautions, because you run the risk of making mistakes. “I see U.S.-based tax advisers advising clients abroad. They are unfamiliar with the rules, because they have few clients who live and work overseas. Inevitably, we see errors being made,” she explains. This can result in IRS penalties for the client and deter repeat business — unless, of course, you’re La Torre Jeker, who picks up the slack by providing the kind of expert assistance that other tax advisers are lacking.