In-Perspective #2: Grahame Jackson – Part 1

Grahame JacksonIn this new series we will be bringing you interviews with Hassans’ lawyers, discussing their background, their work and their views on the main topics of the day.

This month we have a two-part interview with Grahame Jackson, who, after a chance holiday in Gibraltar in the 90s, fell instantly in love and set about making Gibraltar his home.

He also discusses his unconventional career path to becoming Tax Partner at Hassans, plus the wider implications of this year’s new Spanish and UK tax agreements.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to Gibraltar originally?

 I come from Liverpool originally; my mother and father set up a printing business in the 1960s. As with all small family businesses I worked in it myself, starting from the age of ten, working at weekends and so on. I later went to university to study English and Philosophy, which of course is completely unrelated to printing. After finishing university, my dad gave me the keys and said, “right, you’re in charge – get on with it!”

I did that for seven years and then we sold the business to a guy in Manchester, I moved there and worked with him for two years, it was during that period, in 1999, that I first came to Gibraltar and it was love at first sight. I’ll always remember getting off the plane, walking down the steps and looking up at the Rock – it was one of those really heavy Levante days, when the Rock looks like it’s on fire. There was a great plume coming off the Rock and it completely wowed me. I had no idea of “Levanter” at that point, the only thing I knew of Gibraltar was its historical significance.

During my break, I ended up sitting in the Copacabana bar having a conversation with the owner; “how do I get to live here, what do I have to do? This is really amazing, I’m really in love with the place.”

I was here for a week in total and spent three years obsessing about how to move here. I visited numerous times, looking at properties, applying for jobs, eventually arriving on June 22nd 2002 – everybody remembers the day they arrived – and began working at Line Group.

Desmond Reoch, who I’m forever grateful to and who is unfortunately no longer with us, took a risk and gave me a chance based on the fact I’d been company secretary to our printing company, but I had very little technical knowledge.

I recall a specific moment where I answered the phone and there was an issue with a transaction; there were so many barriers in the way, but we had to come up with some compromise – I remember running up and down Main Street and working really hard to make it happen. That transaction brought me to the attention of James Lasry, the Funds Partner, who needed a paralegal, so I went and worked with him. In those days we were the Funds team, it was just me and him and that was it, we didn’t have any PAs or secretaries in those days.

Can you tell us a little about your progression within the firm and the path you took to becoming a tax specialist? You also have an interesting story of how you made the transition to lawyer. You were almost a reluctant lawyer, one might say?

Yes, the next pivotal moment that I remember is having a conversation with James and discussing how I wanted to become qualified as a Chartered Secretary. He commented that I would also make a good lawyer, eventually persuading me to pursue that route instead.

It was quite daunting really because I already had a full-time job and various other commitments, both professional and otherwise, and to then take on a six-year route to qualification – a two-year part-time conversion course, a two years Legal Practice Course, (the practical element) and then a two-year training contract – was quite an undertaking. But James encouraged me to do so and I am so glad I took his advice.

I returned to England to first complete the practical part of the course, the LPC, and then worked in a high street firm in England for two and a half years; right on the sharp end of real life in deprived areas. That experience is very important to me – the reality of debt counselling and child protection conferences makes you realise the importance of the job that we do and the way that the law impacts on people’s lives. It brings everything into sharp focus of how lucky we are in the sector that we work in.

I have a lot of admiration and respect for the work our litigation lawyers advise on; domestic abuse, assault cases, child protection etc. It’s important to remember that being a lawyer is not just about structuring things for large multinational companies, we also work with the local community and have to give something back.

I personally do some charity work, for example I’m currently working with the Animals in Need Foundation in Gibraltar, I fundraise for them and provide legal support. That’s important to me because it would be very easy to just take the money and not feed back into the community that allows us the framework to do what we do. We need to remember that we’re part of that community.

If we turn back to your tax practice for a second. In your recent interview with Your Gibraltar TV, one of the things that stood out was your admission that you find tax interesting, something which, you commented, would seem quite odd to most of us…

Yes, for many people, a tax advisor is much like a dentist, we put it off until the point where we have no choice; in reality most people actually need a tax advisor before things go wrong.

It’s all in the planning. You need to take things slowly, analyse the situation, work it out and consult with your tax advisor before you take any steps that could change things – e.g. where you’re tax resident – not so important in Gibraltar because of our tax regime, but say if you’re a wealthy UK citizen you should be considering things like, “can I make large gifts?” – you need to speak to your tax advisor as this can have consequences. The last thing you want is to do something through naivety, which then triggers an investigation and you spend the next ten years trying to persuade the authorities you made a mistake, because they often won’t believe you. After all they are paid to be sceptical.

You recently said that it was the “puzzle element” of tax that you found most interesting, can you expand on what that means?

I used an analogy saying that advising on Gibraltar tax is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube whilst staring at one square. Having a general idea of the international tax landscape is vitally important.

For example, I don’t know the Danish tax system, or how each of the cogs will fit together, but I can tell you its general shape and anyone who has international tax expertise can do that, because they will know the  kind of foundations any country’s legal system is built on.

So with this basic understanding, you can feel your way though and get the general shape of a situation, and then you need to bring in other advisors and they’ll feed their piece in and together you build an intellectual framework, which shows the path that the client should follow, which balances tax savings for the client, but without deviating from the reality, or the commercial aspects. There are all these different constraints on you and that’s what makes it a puzzle.

You might be able to solve the strict tax interpretation but then you’ve also got the commercial considerations. We have to navigate the different anti-avoidance regimes whilst also trying to achieve the aim of giving tax-beneficial guidance. 

I have to advise the client on his/her actions and manage their expectations and help them understand that there is no magic wand that can solve problems or make their tax obligations completely disappear.

As a tax expert you have a broad knowledge of various jurisdictions, but beyond knowledge and experience, what do you think are the most important skills and qualities your profession requires?

You need to have a commercial sense; something I built up running my own business. You need to be able to cut through the nonsense. I read a letter that a client received from another lawyer the other day and I thought, I’ve no idea what this means. If I don’t know, how on earth is my client meant to?

So, you need to be able to decipher such letters, communicate clearly and concisely. You need to be clear and use language clearly. If something is taxable you need to say , “this is taxable”, rather than saying, “this may be taxable”. Lawyers often skirt around matters, the way they talk to each other is often not the way normal human beings talk to each other 😊, so speaking plain English to clients is vital..

So, having a background in business yourself and direct experience actually running a business – do you consider one of the keys to your success?

I think having a background in business is useful. When I meet a client, I can understand immediately that this guy doesn’t want a hedged answer. What he wants is a definitive answer and then to be told what the risk is afterwards i.e.  “This isn’t taxable, but you need to understand there’s a risk.”

The method of communication needs to be clear, you need to be clear about what you are saying and also to be clear about risks. Because if we start adding too many layers of meaning and nuance, the point gets lost.

When I describe structures and potential plans for clients, having a commercial sense means that I know instinctively when it’s too complex for a client. There have been times where I might think, ok this is a great structure, but I also recognise that it’s not sustainable from an administrative perspective.

Every company, every commercial entity, has its own unique way of doing things and its own highly specific day-to-day realities, understanding this means I don’t pursue a route that looks great on paper but ultimately doesn’t work out in the practical sense.

I need to understand their commercial imperatives and I also need to have a really good knowledge of the law, but I also have to understand the practical implications and the practice that the tax office uses.

Because, of course, you can read the legislation and say, oh that says this… and take it completely literally but then later realise that how it’s actually implemented might not necessarily be the same thing at all. Because there are always different constraints.

Coming Next Week…

In part two of our interview, Grahame discusses both the Spanish and UK Tax Agreements, what their implications are and why will mean big things for Gibraltar in the years ahead.