The Dominion Post
The benefit of taking the tough subjects
FOR TAX and immigration lawyer Ismail Rasheed, sometimes his job comes very close to being social work for some desperate people.
The Lower Hutt-based lawyer has had a few instances where he’s helped people in dire straits as Inland Revenue officers tried to wind up their businesses.
He says one was an 80 year old who was just days away from being bankrupted by the IRD even though he had been paying his government super to the IRD under an arrangement for more than a year. The man was so distraught Rasheed had to alert the Hutt Hospital’s Crisis Assessment & Treatment (CAT) Team as he was worried there was a serious risk of self harm.
Happily he negotiated with the officials to stop the bankruptcy and the client was able to trade his way out of trouble.
‘‘He gave me a hug and said I saved his life.’’
He says he’s also got plenty of gratitude for the work he does as an immigration lawyer, helping people who want to come to New Zealand get their visas.
Recently he won a Residence Class Visa appeal from the Immigration and Protection Tribunal after two advisers told the client that there was no chance of success.
About 60 per cent of his work is immigration, and the rest is tax related, and he says the decision to study those two areas of law were solidly based on his own experiences as a migrant. He was studying law at Waikato University when he says he realised, as an immigrant, he’d need a bit of an edge to get a start in New Zealand. So he sat extra papers, got A+ passes for the tax ones, and applied for a job with Inland Revenue.
‘‘They sent me an email saying: ‘You don’t have a work permit so we can’t offer you a job.’’’
This in turn triggered Rasheed’s lawyerly instincts.
‘‘I sent a legal opinion that said: ‘These are my grades, this is the government immigration policy, I’m entitled to work here after I finish my degree . . . at least you can offer me an interview and meet me, please reconsider my application – I will get the work permit, that is my problem not yours’.
‘‘They liked the fact I was willing to argue – that’s the sort of attitude they wanted for when dealing with taxpayers,’’ he laughs.
‘‘So they sent me an air ticket to come to Wellington for the interview and the two lawyers grilled me on tax laws and case law over one and a half hours.’’
IRD came back in a couple of weeks, on Christmas Eve, and they offered him a job above the level he’d applied for.
It was a big career change for the former policeman from the Maldives, south of Sri Lanka, who now lives in Woburn with his wife Shazly (who runs a hair and wellness centre in Lower Hutt) and their two boys, Ariaan, 10 and Eilaan, who is 8. (And three quarters.)
Becoming a policeman wasn’t something he decided to do, it was part of three years’ national civil service each citizen had to do in the Maldives after finishing school in those days.
‘‘I was called up for the police, I didn’t have a choice. But I was very fortunate to get a lot of training – I went to the United States and France for training and I went to a detective training school in Hyderabad in India.’’
Later, when there was a need to restructure the Maldives police service, Rasheed was chosen for secondment to the West Yorkshire police to get more training with British detectives.
He returned to the Maldives but after a while he was concerned by the rise of the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam on the islands and could tell the society was going to change markedly.
‘‘The way the country was going, I didn’t think I could stay there.
‘‘Plus I like a glass of wine, which is illegal in the Maldives – you’ll go to jail for two years!’’
He was accepted to university at Monash in Melbourne and at Waikato, and it was having some friends in New Zealand that tipped the balance. He knows how tough it is for people starting all over again in a new country, and having some friendly faces is a huge support.
Once he joined the IRD Rasheed’s work involved preparing binding rulings issued to mainly corporate entities and legal research work before moving into banking and insurance sector in the corporates segment as a senior solicitor and then Legal and Technical Services.
He did a lot of work in the tax avoidance area and was heavily involved in the initial drafting of the Commissioner’s Interpretation Statement on Tax Avoidance.
In total he spent 16 years with IRD, during which he’d also had approval to work for an immigration consultancy firm, which was part of his strategic planning for his career.
‘‘I like to know five years before what I am going to do next!’’
In 2010 he did the Law Society’s Flying Start course that would have allowed him to practice on his own account, but it was just a little early for him.
‘‘I got cold feet and I was nervous. I thought, I’m on a good salary, have security, and it was too risky to go out on my own, so I didn’t.’’
But by 2015 he felt he had reached his peak in terms of legal knowledge. Plus he was getting a bit tired of bureaucratic micromanagement so he decided if he was going to be micromanaged by anyone, it might as well be himself.
His decision was encouraged by the government announcing a plan ‘‘to do more, with less’’. As this is usually a diplomatic way of saying ‘‘redundancies are coming’’ he thought he would be better off setting up his practice before a of lot of surplus IRD lawyers hit the market.
To do this he had to do another course through the Law Society called the Stepping Up program which involved 80 hours of study and a three-day workshop. Then he sent off his application and business plan to the Law Society for approval.
In the meantime he was organising the online and social media side of his practice which is a unique feature of his business model and which has helped him fast-track his practice.
‘‘The Law Society approval came through about 3 o’clock. By 7 o’clock that night I had everything ready to go live — website published, Facebook published and immediately made a big noise!’’
‘‘My Facebook is very active, my Instagram is very active. I have personal and professional pages .. . . and every day I post on them.’’
This activity ensures good hits on Google searches for people looking for tax or immigration lawyers, which in turn has driven business to him from Wellington, Auckland, and internationally. In fact, he gets so many queries from Auckland he uses a serviced room there to meet with clients when he flies up. He also has an office on Lambton Quay in Wellington Central.
The only sticking point might have been the name of his company – IR Legal, based on his initials, but close enough to IRD to raise a few eyebrows. But as there was no breach of intellectual property he was cleared to use the name by the Law Society. It’s also the license plate on his 2015 XE Jaguar that acts as his mobile billboard. ‘‘It’s worked really well for me!’’ In fact his clever marketing has seen a couple of law firms approach him for help with using social media to market their services more effectively.
He uses two associates for tax and another helps with the immigration matters.
Immigration is usually the easier department to deal with, he says whereas as Inland Revenue can be much tougher if individual officers want to get aggressive on dealing with businesses.
Immigration, he says, works to solid guidelines designed to be beneficial to New Zealand.
‘‘It is quite interesting how different the two organisations are. You can have a good dialogue with immigration officers and go through the Immigration Instructions that govern things.
‘‘I can say to them, ‘I don’t agree that your interpretation of the guidelines is correct’, and they’ll come back to me after discussing with a technical officer or a manager and say: ‘We agree with you, Mr Rasheed you are right.’
‘‘Whereas with IRD it depends on the officer. Some of them are very good but others can be very aggressive and they don’t want to listen.’’
The downside of being successful is being busy. Rasheed says he has legal duty to act in the best interests of his clients, and he says it’s a seven-day-a-week operation. He starts his day about 4am, checking on legal updates till about 6am when he starts the actual business of the day.
‘‘Then I go and meet my wife [Shazly] for lunch or coffee and go back to work. And then 5 o’clock is wine time!’’