Tuan Van Le talks battling billionaires and serving in key Federal Court roles during the pandemic
From a toddler watching Perry Mason reruns, Tuan Van Le has come far in his legal journey. This former ATO executive director of litigation and former Federal Court judicial registrar was appointed to lead the tax disputes practice of boutique firm Aptum Legal last year.
In a storied career, Van Le has battled billionaires vis-à-vis family members and come out strong. But more than his legal chops, he became a key player in the Federal Court’s response to the 2020 bushfire crisis and to the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this December 2021 interview, Van Le talks the rapid transition of courts to using more tech, applying his experience from the ATO to his current role, and the legal profession’s need to challenge its value proposition.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
My parents were boat people who unknowingly developed my interest in the law as a toddler by putting on re-runs of Perry Mason whenever I wasn’t settled. I really enjoy the strategy involved in positioning clients in the best possible way to achieve their goals.
However, by far my favourite part of the job is helping people and businesses go through what is usually a pretty difficult time for them and helping them through to the other side.
What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?
I have acted for the ATO on a range of complex tax, debt litigation, insolvency and administrative law matters, but my most memorable case was against the nephew of a well-known billionaire. It was a complex insolvency dispute where we were flooded with documents and interlocutory applications for over 2.5 years – it made obtaining judgment and a subsequent settlement even sweeter!
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
Aptum Legal has bolstered its tax disputes practice by appointing Eric Maben as a senior lawyer, and me as the practice lead. I was previously an executive director of litigation at the ATO and judicial registrar of the Federal Court. Eric was a principal and senior lawyer at the ATO and former in-house corporate counsel.
Together with our managing director, Nigel Evans, who was previously a barrister, we will be bringing our unique expertise and knowledge of the ATO to the tax disputes market.
What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?
[In 2020], when I was still a judicial registrar of the Federal Court, I had two big accomplishments: the first was being appointed the court’s national bushfire relief coordinator when the bushfire crisis occurred in January 2020. The second was being appointed the court’s coronavirus coordinator in March 2020, when the first COVID-19 case shut down the Lionel Bowen Building.
It was a privilege to be entrusted with those roles and to help affected litigants through such difficult times. It was very challenging for the court to keep its business going, and for the judges to transition to online hearings within such a short space of time. In saying that, everyone pulled together because there was a real sense that keeping the courts open was necessary for access to justice, and also for the profession to continue to be gainfully employed.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
The courts require more assistance from the profession and law firms regarding the use of technology in hearings and other court processes, particularly as we are returning to some form of normalcy.
The courts have acknowledged that online hearings are good enough in the circumstances but have raised concerns about the diminished gravitas of online hearings compared to a courtroom, the need for witnesses to give evidence in a secure setting, and the greater difficulty in following oral submissions.
Now is the time for the profession to raise ideas for the courts’ consideration as to how the technology we have been forced to use over the past two years can be incorporated into court processes to promote the dictates of justice.
What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
The legal profession is conservative and slow to change. When you look at the way technology and data have transformed the retail, financial services and biotech industries, you realise very little has changed in the way legal services are delivered.
At some point, Silicon Valley will turn its attention to the legal industry and will completely disrupt our current model. We need to get over the notion that the law is too complex for computer algorithms, start to ask ourselves difficult questions about our value proposition, and we need to change.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
Aptum Legal has some exciting collaborations with some front-end advisory and accounting firms planned for . I can’t wait for people to see the final product!