Transactional attorney shares his business, tax expertise with students

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Lee Alan Sartori learned business skills at a young age around the kitchen table, from parents who started and operated a successful small business and managed several real estate investments with little capital but lots of headaches.

An attorney with Howard & Howard in metro Detroit and an adjunct law professor at Michigan State University College of Law and Walsh College, Sartori ran a small business in his later high school and early college years. When budding entrepreneurs sought his advice, he discovered his passion for talking to people about business. He also was impressed with the depth of business knowledge shown by his CPA and attorneys.

"Those experiences and interactions morphed into the idea of becoming a 'business consultant'--whatever that may mean," Sartori says. "I actually sat down in a public library and researched a list of credentials I believed were necessary to realize that goal and then set about working on the list.

"After a few years I realized that certain knowledge related to some credentials I was obtaining by experience and via other credentials I'd already obtained, and frankly, that I may not live long enough to finish the list."

Focusing instead on major areas of knowledge, Sartori earned a bachelor's degree in accounting and an MBA from Oakland University, a master's degree in taxation from Walsh College, and his juris doctorate summa cum laude from MSU College of Law mainly at night while working during the day.

"I really don't view myself as an attorney, CPA, business person, or instructor - I simply view myself as a business consultant that happens to be practicing in a law firm and perhaps an adjunct professor to some very fine colleges who ask me to speak when they believe I've something beneficial to say."

Academics and experience go hand-in-hand, and one without the other is only one-half of an education, he says. He mixes a lot of real world experiences into classes so his students not only get the flavor of real life, but also can use their knowledge immediately on the job.

The "light bulb" going off over students' heads is gratifying, as is the opportunity to affect their lives in a positive way, according to Sartori.

"Anyone who is sincerely into teaching can attest to the electricity in the air when knowledge is gained and, if they're honest, their sheer enjoyment in participating in that experience," he says. "I'd like to think that if I'm teaching, or 'selling' something, it's really inspiration, confidence, and problem solving and that the subject matter is only the means of conveying those items. No matter what the subject matter is, I believe one of the main purposes of academics should be to solve peoples' problems."

After 25 years of practice and 11 years of teaching, the teacher is still a student, learning every day from pretty much everyone he encounters.

"Fortunately, I've been blessed to work with a number of extraordinary, knowledgeable, and ethical senior attorneys and business persons over the years from whom I've not only learned a lot about business but about life in general--I'll do my best to pass along the gifts they've shared with me," Sartori says.

After involvement in many contentious disputes amongst business owners, Sartori put together a class in "Business Divorce," that he believes is the only free standing course of its type in the country. The natural outgrowth of a closely held business transactional practice, business divorce is generally a product of poor planning, under-legal representation, and just plain greed--not necessarily in that order--and tends to use every bit of his knowledge in business, law, accounting, taxation, and human relations, he says.

"Good or bad--right or wrong--I always feel I'm helping people make the best of what generally is always a bad situation no matter which side I'm representing," he says.

His diversified transactional practice lets him work with people trying to move their businesses and lives forward, and who are interested in protecting their wealth, their job, or both.

"The main job of a transactional attorney should be geared toward that end and I try to keep that in mind no matter what size client or project I'm working on."

Transactional attorneys with a tax background make the best transactional attorneys, and utilizing one minimizes duplication of effort and helps businesses minimize costs, he says.

"And yes, of course, I'm biased," he admits. "To truly understand taxes, you must understand numbers and how to maximize wealth. I've yet to see any transactional work that is not ultimately driven by numbers and of course maximizing and protecting wealth is really what the client is interested in, in the first place.

"One of my favorite sayings is, 'Taxes permeate everything.' There may be no taxes due or they can be paid later or perhaps that the item or event is not taxable at all. Nevertheless, the question is always there in everything we do in life--period."

With the business world shrinking, and an inflow and outflow of cross-border transactions increasing, tax consequences are often not obvious and many times misunderstood.

"Those persons that understand the tax ramifications of these transactions are undoubtedly a step ahead," he says. "I've yet to meet a client or potential client that says, 'I want to pay more and I want to pay it now' - here or anywhere."

Married with two daughters, Sartori--born in Detroit, raised and educated in Michigan--is a dyed-in-the-wool Michigander.

"I've no intention of leaving anytime soon," he says. "I believe the quality of life here is way too good to go somewhere else and there's no other place I would rather be."

Published: Thu, Mar 29, 2012