Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
Thanks to the many recent submissions, suggestions and encouraging emails from lawyers and non-lawyers alike. I’m thrilled (had to) that the series is resonating with so many of you.
Allison Suter is a reader who I have corresponded with over the years, who also happens to be a lawyer, and a tax expert. And a wedding photographer. Basically, she’s an extremely talented human being, and when I read about her new business — creating software that makes income tax filing easier for Canadians for free — I asked if I could feature her prior to the tax season rush. Because nothing says interesting like taxes. Fine, nothing says interesting like someone creating an innovative new site to make something as boring as taxes seem easy. Which is precisely what Allison did.
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What made you decide to leave private practice? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I think even before I went to law school I knew that I wasn’t going to be in private practice for my whole career. My dad even remembers me saying as much as he helped me move to Vancouver to start law school!
Between graduating from law school and before I started my legal career, I took a year off to travel. During that year I became more certain that a traditional path wasn’t going to work for me. Shortly after I started my practice, sitting at my desk in my little corner of the sky became more and more draining every day, despite my challenging work, smart colleagues and fantastic mentors. Then I started dreading Mondays. I left (and ran away to Argentina temporarily) almost as soon as my husband and I had saved enough money to start a business and live off our savings for about two years.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
What I find fulfilling about both SimpleTax and my freelance photography business is that I really believe in what I’m doing. With SimpleTax, we are helping people complete and file their tax returns—something that (in Canada and the U.S. especially) is much too complicated. And being a photographer is incredibly rewarding in its own way: I get to hang out with people on the happiest day of their lives and capture the moments that they might be too busy to remember.
On a more personal level, I love being in charge of what my day looks like, everyday. Do I want to work from Bali for a month? No problem. Do I want to take a yoga class on Tuesday mornings? No problem. I’m also quite introverted, and I love being able to work from home without distraction.
But probably the most fulfilling thing for me is building something. I’m fairly certain I’ll never work in professional services again, because I get such a high from creating. I think I’ll always want to be the client.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional practice but concerned about what is out there?
A lot of people (and all of Pinterest) will encourage you to take a dramatic leap to start living the life of your dreams. While I love the inspirational nature of this advice… I’m not sure it works that well for a lot of lawyers. For me, getting ready to leave took a lot of sacrifice, planning, and even more saving. One really good thing about being a lawyer at a big (or even medium-sized) firm is that it can pay quite well. Rather than splashing out with my friends and colleagues, I lived like a student and saved every penny that I could so that I could make a change.
When I left the law, I knew that I had a two-year runway to start something. I didn’t know exactly what was going to fill my days, but I knew that I had enough to get me by to figure out what that was. For my personality, having that security was the single most important thing. In the end it only took a few months to start SimpleTax, but since it’s such a seasonal business, having that security was invaluable.
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
While I don’t really identify as a lawyer anymore, I do use my legal background every single day. I think that law school and practising law gives you the broadest understanding of the society in which we live. I majored in finance in my undergrad degree (and even worked in finance for a year) before law school and I remember sitting in my corporate securities class thinking to myself “oh … NOW I get it”.
Negotiation, contracts, and reading and writing are some of the skills that developed that I use every day. Furthermore, since I was a tax lawyer, I’ve even got a bit of a technical overlap since since I’m building tax software! I don’t ever regret my education.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
You haven’t met my friends!
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Allison is an entrepreneur and non-practising tax lawyer. She earned her BComm from the University of Alberta in 2004, her LLB from UBC in 2008 and practiced tax law with Moskowitz & Meredith (now KPMG Law) in Vancouver and Toronto until 2011. After leaving her practice, Allison founded SimpleTax, a personal tax filing software company with a mission to make it easier for Canadians to prepare and file their tax returns. Allison is also a freelance wedding photographer and spends many summer days capturing peoples’ memories on one the happiest days of their lives!
15 thoughts on “Thrillable Hours: Allison Suter, Tax Entrepreneur”
Does Allison offer tax advice/guidance for Canadians such as you, Jodi, and myself who run have non-traditional income an expenses? I’m working with an accountant who is trying her hardest to understand and to ensure I stay on the right side of the equation but I think that someone like Allison, who understands both the lifestyle and the tax system, would offer much more. Thanks!
Hi Gillian! Currently I actually can’t offer any such services; my law society status is “non-practising” so I’m precluded from providing any legal advice! That being said, it is something I have thought about for the future—I love bookkeeping and taxes and all the related stuff—but at the moment I’m totally full to the brim with SimpleTax, Allison Suter Photography, and a new little nomad on the way in a couple of weeks!
I can relate so much to Allison (not that I’m a lawyer or anything) in terms of knowing even before I stepped into my professional pathway, I had an idea in mind that I wouldn’t stay there for long. Not only that, I have aspirations to become a photographer after being a hobbyist for over 5 years. How did your photography interests all start and what was the single biggest move you made to move from hobbyist to professional, Allison?
Hi Kan! I think that it was mostly my friends and husband who motivated me to take the leap to start charging. Since I was interested in photographing people, I was photographing a lot of friends and family and strangers for free—at a certain point I was just spending too much time on it (I was still practising law at this point) and it became time to start charging for sessions.
I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been interested in a different type of photography, I have no idea how I would have gone about selling non-commissioned photographs!
I appreciate her practical approach to her decision!
Allison you’re awesome
Living the dream
Thanks Jodi and Allison, I didn’t know SimpleTax was made by a Nomad. My dad got me on it and it has sure made life easier. All the best to you!
Loved reading about this! Amazing work!! xxoo Katie
Hello Allison, I love this blog post. Especially the part about being in charge of your day…one of the best advantages of creating an alternative career. :) Have you read the 100 dollar start up? There’s a great example of a couple in there who fly around the world doing wedding photography.
Nice interview Jodi and Allison. And like a few of the others here, I’ll be using simple tax for my return. Last year I paid H&R Block and got hardly anything back.
Love this post. I’m a solo practitioner in the USA, also making plans to transition into an alternative career (as soon as I figure out what it will be, LOL). Good look and best wishes on your new venture.
I concur, awesome post, stay with it & write an update! keeps other lawyers who are travelling and writing going .. :-) Sarah
Nice interview, Jodi and Allison! I’ve seen those photos on Pinterest and I have to agree, that dramatic leap to start living the life of your dreams? I know some people can just take off to travel full time with only $100 and love it. But I’d be too stressed out to enjoy traveling that way. Like most people, I need to take some time to plan and save and build some sort of location-independent income.
*off to check out Simple Tax
Love this story, following what felt right to her, taking risks but all with a solid grounding in reality… great! :)
Very inspiring and a heart touching story well said Al.
Being a professional and serving someone who doesn’t really care about the attributes and expect the unexpected reviews from them has been a common story for many including me.
Looks like my time is gonna come soon to do the something what my heart has been pounding for…
Lesse when the time ticks and I’m turning to the path been waiting for me to lead…