A Whole Different Ballgame
Tax attorney William Choi found his legal passion when he began representing nonprofits
Published in 2013 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 21, 2013
Updated on May 27, 2022
Bill Choi liked being a tax attorney well enough.
After a brief career as an accountant in the early 1980s, and after getting his J.D. from USC Law in 1985, he worked for six years at Latham & Watkins in their tax department. “I enjoyed it,” he says.
Then for four years he lived abroad. First it was South Korea—the country he and his siblings emigrated from when he was 8—where he worked at Kim & Chang, helping U.S. and European companies doing international transactions in Asia. Next, he moved to Hong Kong, where he worked for a New York-based firm in the years before the British protectorate returned to Chinese control in 1997. “That was pretty interesting as well,” Choi says. “But it’s hard to say I had a real passion for it. Certainly, I had aptitude. But I’m not sure I found it more interesting than anyone else.”
That passion came in late 1995 when Choi’s mentor, Albert Rodriguez, contacted him in Hong Kong and asked him to return to Los Angeles to co-found a firm with Rodriguez and their colleague Dwayne Horii. A few months later, Rodriguez, Horii & Choi (now Rodriguez, Horii, Choi & Cafferata) was developing a niche practice within tax law of serving nonprofit organizations.
“[That] for me was a whole different ballgame,” he says.
“The people who run nonprofits are, for the most part, people who want to do something good for society,” Choi says. “Almost all nonprofits have a volunteer board of directors, who are community leaders, and they’re spending their free time volunteering to be on the board. … The last thing they want is to put in all this work and be blamed when something goes wrong. So there’s a real sense in the nonprofit community—probably more so than when I started doing this—of wanting to avoid trouble while at the same time doing your best to accomplish the mission of the organization.”
Why is the concern to avoid trouble greater today? Back then, Choi says, most nonprofits didn’t hear much criticism. “I think in the last ten years or so, more and more nonprofits have been targeted—whether it’s at the state level or the federal level. There are a lot of questions about whether nonprofits are paying their executives too much, whether certain nonprofits are really nonprofits or whether they operate like for-profit businesses. That has resulted in a heightened concern on the part of my clients to make sure that all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.”
Katharine DeShaw, executive director of United States Artists—an organization that provides annual grants to artists in various fields—started working with Choi in 2005. She remembers asking him why he went into the nonprofit sector instead of the for-profit sector.
“He said, ‘You know, the nonprofit sector has a soul.’”
Choi describes his upbringing from age 8 on as typically American. His father had been a military officer with the South Korean Navy from the late 1940s to 1959, when he moved his family to the U.S. “He did what a lot of Korean and other immigrants do: start different businesses, work various jobs,” says Choi. “My parents first had a wig store. They imported human hair from Korea and turned them into wigs. Then they had a grocery store, a sandwich shop, a janitorial service and a bunch of different odds and ends.”
Did Choi help out in his parents’ shops? “Every single one of them,” he says.
“You know, a teenager wants to sleep late and goof around all the time. Actually having to go into work and bag groceries or wipe floors, I didn’t enjoy that too much.”
At San Jose State University he majored in accounting, which sparked his interest in taxes. “I also took a business law class about contracts and things, which was also interesting to me,” he says. A postgraduate accounting job at Deloitte Haskins Sells (now Deloitte & Touche), where he met many lawyers, sealed the deal.
In particular, the policy issues behind tax law drew Choi in. “Why do you have a home interest deduction?” he says. “What’s the reason for that? Why do you have a deduction for charitable contribution? Why do you give people a deduction for giving to their churches?”
Today, Choi deals almost exclusively with complex tax issues. “By the time people come to us the answers really aren’t that simple,” Choi says. “The law may not be clear, so you’re relying on case law, and rulings from the IRS, and how the law was applied to a particular set of facts. Each situation is a little bit different. … A big part of what I do is working on issues of tax exemption. You know, whether a particular organization doing a particular activity is qualified for tax exemption, and if so under which of the 20, 30 different tax exemptions the IRS and Congress permits.”
Sometimes the issues aren’t clear—even to his clients. “Often,” he says, “clients think that their problem is A, B and C, and when you get in, it’s indeed A, B and C, but it’s X, Y and Z as well. So based on this, I think about other questions they should be asking, and other issues we may need to deal with. Once I’ve done that, I meet with the client. Then I can ask additional questions that hone in on what the real issues are.”
Clients notice. “He looks at [a case] from a lot of different sides, including the side of the person bringing the action,” DeShaw says. “I appreciate the fact that he has a sense of not only what his client needs, but how can we come to some place of peace in this deliberation? How can we both feel whole when we walk away from this deliberation? In my experience, there’s not a lot of lawyers who look at the world that way.”
Antonia Hernández, president and CEO of California Community Foundation, agrees. “I deal with Bill a lot on the larger organizational governance issues,” she says. “I myself am a lawyer, and sometimes lawyers have this perception that we’re all pit bulls. But Bill has a welcoming, warm demeanor, even when you’re dealing with difficult issues.”
Although Choi generally doesn’t talk about specific cases, he makes an exception in two cases that have already been heavily publicized.
When two members of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee were accused of bribing IOC officials to award the games to Salt Lake City, Choi and his team took on the organization’s case in 1999-2000. “Our firm co-counseled with Latham & Watkins to help the organization weather the storm,” Choi says. “Our expertise is in looking at what happened and ensuring that nothing that occurred would endanger the Salt Lake Olympic Committee’s tax-exempt status, which is vital to them to be able to run the Olympics. So we were involved for several months. We actually got involved in the investigation aspect—trying to figure out who knew what, who did what and so on. … At the end of the day the government found that the committee, the organization itself, which is our client, had done nothing wrong.”
More recently, Choi represented the Dodgers Dream Foundation in a case examining whether the foundation’s assets were used to benefit the public, the Dodgers organization, or Frank and Jamie McCourt, the team’s former owners, who controlled the foundation and who were going through a messy divorce. “I have a good working relationship with the California Attorney General’s Office, and we were able to sort things out and [correct] where mistakes may have been made,” Choi says. “Most of the resolution I think was in just setting forth good rules and parameters of how the foundation should work and how it should be independent from the Dodgers.”
A third-year law student recently asked Choi how he could work with nonprofits, too. “I recommended that he start at a large firm where he can get exposure to a wide variety of practice areas: litigation, corporate, tax, etc.,” Choi says. “While I am a tax lawyer and my knowledge of the tax laws is critical to what I do, as legal counsel to nonprofit organizations I am asked to provide counsel on a wide range of issues. Having a broad background has enhanced my ability to provide effective counsel to my clients.”
He wants it to be broader still. Choi and his wife have two children, a daughter at UCLA and a son in ninth grade, but he still wants to learn. Back in Korea in 1992, he says, he had the rusty Korean language skills of an 8-year-old, but he got markedly better during his time there. It has since fallen off again. “One of my goals is to get my language skills at least back to where it was when I left Korea in 1995,” he says.
Then there’s his day job. Despite his decades in the business, he continues to learn new things. “I’m always surprised by that,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and you’d think you’d know everything you need to know. But I’m still always surprised that an issue comes up and I have to sit back and go, ‘Wow. I’ve never really considered this issue before.’”