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From TV to tax law

January 20, 2016 | Alumni

In October 2014, at an annual ceremony held at DAR Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented 10 Attorney General’s Awards for Distinguished Service, the department’s second highest honor. After team after team of litigators and negotiators accepted their awards, there remained just one individual attorney left. Kathleen Lyon ’98, a trial attorney in the appellate section of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Tax Division, in the Washington, D.C., office, was presented with an award for her work on the Justice Department’s Program for Non-Prosecution Agreement or Non-Target Letters for Swiss Banks (Swiss Bank Program), while she served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for the tax division, from 2012 through 2014. The experience of having the nation’s highest-ranking attorney bestow one of the department’s highest honors on her, Lyon said several months after the ceremony, “still feels a little surreal.”

On Aug. 29, 2013, the DOJ announced the Swiss Bank Program to encourage Swiss banks to cooperate in the department’s ongoing investigations of the use of foreign bank accounts to commit tax evasion. Under the program, Swiss banks not already targeted for criminal investigation may come forward to admit wrongdoing, provide information on U.S. persons with accounts at the banks, pay a penalty, and, upon satisfying the terms of the program, receive a non-prosecution agreement.

The program attracted 106 Swiss banks to submit letters of intent to participate. Lyon helped develop the framework for the program and worked with a team to address matters that arose in the early stage of implementing it. When Lyon was a law student at Ohio State in the late 1990s, she might have laughed if someone told her that in just over 15 years, she would win such an award for work in the field of tax law. The most surprising thing about her career trajectory so far, she said, is just how unpredictable it’s been.

“I really thought I would be a trial litigator in labor and employment law,” she said of her initial career goals. “Instead, I wound up as an appellate lawyer straight out of my clerkship – first in labor law, then in tax law, an area that was not my focus in law school. I’ve worked hard to do a good job wherever I’ve been, but I didn’t plan any of that. It’s more like I saw opportunities that looked interesting and decided to jump.”

Lyon, who is originally from South Bend, Indiana, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Indiana University- Bloomington in 1990.

Before, during, and after college, she worked in television production, mostly in live news and sports, for nine years. After “burning out” in the media industry, Lyon enrolled in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

Though her goal at first was to do media work on political campaigns, she landed a job during graduate school as a legislative assistant at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (now called Legal Momentum), which at the time was coordinating a nationwide effort to pass the Violence Against Women Act. She worked as a liaison to congressional offices and more than 1,000 grassroots groups on the initiative, and said it was a life-changing experience.

“It was the first time I’d been around lawyers, and for me it mattered that they were women lawyers,” she says. “One of those lawyers argued an important case before the Supreme Court while I worked there, and it was very cool to see the moot and the argument.”

After graduation she moved to NOW LDEF’s headquarters in New York City to work as a legal assistant to the legal director, and, at the same time, decided to apply to law school. Lyon chose Ohio State, she said, because a lawyer at NOW LDEF, who had written an insider’s guide book to law school for prospective law students, told Lyon that Ohio State law graduates can literally be found working in all corners of the world.

“That Ohio State had a very good curriculum in my area of interest (at the time, labor and employment law) was most important, but I also felt good about where I might wind up after graduation,” Lyon explained. “And she was right – Ohio State grads are everywhere.”

After law school, Lyon clerked for the Hon. James S. Gwin of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio from 1998 to 2000 – an experience she describes as “a real education in brass-tacks litigation.” Then, a fellow alumnus, Arlus Stephens ’96, told her that the National Labor Relations Board had started an honors program modeled after the Department of Justice Honors Program, for recent grads and law clerks. She applied for the job, got it, and worked in the NLRB’s Appellate Court branch from 2000 through 2006.

In 2006, when Lyon learned about a job opening for an appellate lawyer in the tax division at the DOJ, she applied. “To my surprise, in law school I’d really enjoyed my ‘code’ classes,” she said. “I didn’t focus on tax law during law school, but the Tax Division was looking for people with strong writing skills, which is crucial to appellate practice, and they could teach me the finer points of the law.”

“I’ve been here eight years now, and I’m still learning,” she added. “Lawyers in the Tax Division are first and foremost litigators, not transactional tax lawyers, so anyone who wants to do civil litigation or be a federal prosecutor should keep us in mind.” Working as an attorney for the U.S. government carries a hefty weight of responsibility, and Lyon said this is the most challenging – and the best – aspect of her job.

“The most fulfilling aspect of the job is the sense of a greater purpose that suffuses the work. It’s no small thing to stand up in court and say, ‘I represent the United States,’” she said, “and I’m proud of the work we do.”

When asked what advice she would offer current Moritz students, Lyon said, “When I was sitting in Contracts my first year or Employment Discrimination my third year, I never thought I would wind up as an appellate lawyer in the Tax Division at the Department of Justice.”

“I’ve been fortunate,” she added, “but I’ve also worked hard, kept my eyes open for interesting opportunities, and was willing to take some risks along the way. Don’t be tied into one vision of yourself, and when you’re uncertain or worried about the next step, trust that your legal training and instincts will see you through. You can do so many things you can’t even imagine right now. You never know how your career will unfold.”