This article originally appeared in the April issue of ALI CLE’s The Practical Lawyer.
St. Louis partner Larry Katzenstein was featured in a recent issue of The Practical Lawyer. As part of the publication's "Conversation with an expert" section, Larry discusses his career, interests and tax law.
This is part of a series of interviews between Rajiv S. Khanna, principle of The Law Offices of Rajiv Khanna, and leading practitioners across the country designed to provide personal and professional insights into various areas of the law.
How did you happen to fall into tax law? I guess because I enjoyed the course in law school, much to my surprise. I had signed up the first year for a course called “Accounting for Lawyers.” And it was so boring. Back then, a tax law course was required, or at least extremely strongly encouraged. I thought that was going to be really boring, too. I was surprised how interesting it was. For example, the beginning of a tax law course is always, “What is income?” And we discussed cases like whether, if you embezzle income from your employer, is it taxable income? That went to the Supreme Court several times before they decided the answer, and it’s actually a close call, but the question was, “How can you be taxed on something that does not belong to you?” The court finally decided it is income, which is a problem when the person who got embezzled from tries to get the money back, and there’s a chunk of tax taken out of it. Then we discussed cases like, “If you find buried treasure in your backyard, is that income?” So, it didn’t deal with accounting. It dealt with concepts, and I’ve always liked puzzles. And the Internal Revenue Code is a fascinating puzzle of interlocking pieces that don’t quite fit perfectly.
So the entire trajectory of your career was set with just one course? Well, no. After that, I had other courses too. I took the estate planning course and the core corporate tax course and other courses too. I was always interested in other things, like constitutional law. And my practice is really a lot different from most people who do what I do. A part of my practice is representing estate planning clients and dealing with the estate and gift tax. But the other part of my practice, which is equal in size, deals with charitable giving. So exempt organization issues come up pretty often. I represent planned giving programs and there are a lot of complicated issues that come up in giving money to charity. So, that’s probably about half my practice—representing both charities and philanthropists in the tax law of charitable giving, which is very complicated. [Internal Revenue Code] section 170 goes on for pages, and pages, and pages.
Tell us about music and programming. I got interested in programming really because I fell in love with computers. I got my first PC in 1985 and I decided I wanted to learn how to program it—just because I thought it’d be fun. I had this new tool and I didn’t think it’d be useful. I just thought it’d be fun. I tried to write programs to find prime numbers and that kind of stuff, not very useful. Then, I guess, I saw an actuarial formula in the regulations under section 170 for computing the remainder interest in a personal residence given to charity; you have to take into account the depreciable life. And I thought, well, that might be interesting to figure out. Then I wondered what’s behind those actuarial factors in the IRS tables in publications, 1457, and 58, and 59. So, I got interested in where those numbers came from. I thought it’d be interesting just to try to program it for fun. I had no idea of selling this and I think Jeff Pennell suggested it because I had mentioned it to him. When the new tables came out in 1989, there was a two-month window when you could use the floating interest rates with the old mortality assumptions. There were no published tables for that. So I had those once I had written this program. So now, you know, I sell it on the internet and most people just download it with a credit card. I probably get as many downloads from accounting firms as from law firms, but it has been fun. And I like playing with the formulas and writing new stuff. I keep adding things to it. It’s been just kind of a fun hobby. I don’t consider myself particularly logical or, you know, I wouldn’t say I have any mathematical skill at all. I never had any math past high school. I like puzzles and things, but I wouldn’t say I’m that good at it. It was more effort than brains.
Talk about your other interests. Well, the other interests I have besides music, which we’ll get to, I love to travel and I love hiking. I did a lot of before I got married. I did a lot of travel in remote places. I traveled around Afghanistan by myself and went on a hiking trip to the Mount Everest base camp with a group. I did a lot of that. And then when our daughter was born, we had a little bit of a gap, but we started traveling with her when she was really little. We’ve been all over the world with her.
What is the most interesting place you’ve ever visited? Well, they’re all different. Food is a great draw for me. In some places, the food is fantastic. Singapore is amazing for the variety of different cultures and food that all came together there. And, you know, for hygiene, they put them all under a roof where they could monitor them. The street food is under a roof and just incredible things you’d never find anywhere else. So that was fun. I’ve been to the Himalayas three times, hiking, including Sikkim, which very few people go to, and then once in the Annapurna region with my wife and daughter, just a few years ago. And then in my younger days, I climbed a few mountains.
Talk about your music hobby. That also sounds very interesting because you’re going from extreme left-brain activities to extreme right brain activities. I like to read. My father came from Germany in 1936 and he grew up across the street from an opera house. And he was a passionate music lover. So we always had it on in the house. And I really think you have to be exposed to music as a child. It’s like language, I think. I really grew up with it and I played piano all through school. I played a piano solo at my kindergarten graduation and all through college, I went to as many concerts as I could go to—chamber music and symphonic and opera, and it’s just always been a great passion of mine. I play piano still.
You also conduct, correct? When did you start doing that? I guess about 30 years ago. I got interested in conducting just because I wanted to know more about the craft. And we have a fabulous St. Louis Symphony. I’ve been active with the St. Louis Symphony for many years. I’m on the board and I’m the General Counsel of the Symphony. I became friendly with the assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. In fact, he stayed in our third floor for a while. He gave me a lot of coaching and showed me how to do things. I had always read scores—I was a fluent score reader from high school, probably, or earlier. I collected them and could read them fluently. It came pretty naturally to me, even reading big orchestral scores. After we had gotten some coaching, I wanted to conduct. So I said, “How about I make a contribution to the Youth Orchestra and you give me 20 minutes of rehearsal?” I did that about three times. The St. Louis Symphony then wanted to hold an auction, so I said, “Why don’t you offer as a prize,” (for a certain amount of money) “the right to conduct the St. Louis Symphony at a rehearsal?” And they said, “OK”. And I arranged to buy it. And I did that and I did Don Juan by Richard Strauss. I did that about three years. And then I asked if I could actually conduct a private concert and I’ve been doing that ever since. So we invite clients, all of our friends.
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