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Potential impact of Brexit on the law firm market

With Brexit negotiations continuing in the United Kingdom (UK), there is little clarity as of yet on how businesses will be able to operate both in mainland Europe and cross border once the UK leaves the European Union (EU) in March 2019.

As a regulated profession, law firms potentially face greater uncertainty — the regulations directed by each individual bar association must be carefully considered in conjunction with any agreement reached between the UK and the EU.

What’s happening at present in law firms with UK offices?

Brexit remains high on law firms’ agendas, particularly with respect to the uncertainty surrounding firms being able to provide legal services as normal after March 2019. Conversations around restructuring have been brought to the forefront.

Many law firms, UK-headquartered firms in particular, are approaching their final accounting period of trading before the two year Article 50 process expires in March 2019. For some businesses, it is therefore impractical to wait to see how Brexit negotiations progress and how local countries’ bar associations respond. Any action is likely to take a period of time and require HMRC (and potentially other) clearance or clarification.

What should your law firms be doing?

Each business will need to consider its current legal structure, the tax and regulatory rules (including around management, control and profit sharing) in the locations in which it operates, and the profitability of the local offices.

Some firms will wish to restructure, and those most likely to consider restructuring may have:

  • EU operations held within a UK incorporated entity (i.e. an EU branch of UK LLP);
  • EU operations held within a non-UK incorporated entity (i.e. an EU branch of US LLP); and/or,
  • EU incorporated entities with UK solicitors having a level of management and control.

Despite Brexit primarily affecting UK businesses, it is important to note the impact that this may have on US-headquartered law firms. As a result of current regulations, US-headquartered law firms usually operate as a UK LLP, or a branch of the US LLP depending on the EU country in question. However, a by-product of Brexit could see the harmonization of regulation across EU territories so it is possible that neither of these structures will be permissible post-March 2019.

While not certain, to the extent that any grandfathering provisions are introduced there may be benefits in a firm being established in the appropriate country(ies) in the appropriate form before March 2019.

It should be noted that it is possible that a firm may wish to restructure twice: the first time to satisfy the applicable regulations during an interim period to ensure continuity of operations, and once again after a final agreement has been ratified to give a more permanent solution. As we approach the March 2019 deadline there is likely to be an increasing need to have plans in place to manage the uncertainty and satisfy stakeholders.

Potential tax consequences of restructuring?

PwC UK has noted that firms currently considering restructuring their EU operations may consider transferring their EU book of business into a separate EU legal entity. This could involve a demerger of a business within a UK LLP, which poses a number of UK tax considerations, including:

  • whether there has been a cessation of trade in the UK LLP;
  • for UK income tax purposes, whether this could trigger the closing year and opening year rules of taxation to apply to the equity partners (basis period adjustments). Quantification of overlap profits would be required to understand the funding requirements;
  • a UK capital gains tax event could arise on the equity partners upon transfer of partnership assets to a new legal entity;
  • there may be non-UK income tax consequences, for example if an EU office has to move to an accruals basis of accounting; and/or
  • overseas capital gains tax events may also crystallise on the equity partners.

It is clear that restructuring, if necessary, could result in both “dry” tax charges and an acceleration of tax, which may provide challenges around funding for both the firm and the individual partners.

Battle of accountants versus machines

It is hard to go a day without seeing an article or a viewpoint in the media declaring Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make certain jobs redundant – but will it be the same for those roles carried out in the finance industry?

Technological advancements are at a faster pace than ever, with computers becoming more reactive and human-like in their responses and decision-making.

In January, a round on the American television quiz show Jeopardy was won by a computer named Watson, beating previous quiz show champions.

The rapid pace of technology advancement will no doubt see computers performing some accounting and finance functions, and this is already happening.

Recent innovations like mobile phone apps that can identify expenses from photos of source documents, and automatically allocate them to the accounting records, are already widely used across a range of industries.

In fact, last year HMRC confirmed it will begin rolling out AI to review tax returns and issue tax penalties.

Deciding to implement such technology in business must be well planned and researched. It is important that management make the decision in the context of their particular business.

For example, do they have the resources to employ this technology – certain pieces of software can be expensive and involve significant upfront costs before yielding any benefits.

Do staff have an appetite to adopt this technology? To maximise effectiveness, it is important that staff are trained and competent in using the technology on a regular basis.

How secure is the software and the devices used?

This is particularly important in the current world of big data, with the real risk of data breaches in large and small businesses across the globe, not to mention compliance with data protection legislation.

Whilst it appears inevitable that technology is developing to take over the more repetitive or basic accounting and finance functions, there are some positive aspects for use of this technology by accountants and businesses.

Not only will technology bring about new types of jobs that will be less repetitive and more interpretive (increasing employee job satisfaction), it will also free up management’s time to focus on value-adding activities.

Activities that can add to revenue (such as focusing on new markets, products and clients) or reduce costs within a business.

If firms are looking to the future but aren’t open to change, they will lose competitive advantage.

As Northern Ireland businesses increasingly compete on a global scale, the adoption of robotics and technologies is essential.

Rather than seeing technology as a threat, accountants and businesses should see it as a growing opportunity.

How to Choose the Right Accountancy Software for Making Tax Digital

Making Tax Digital is the United Kingdom government’s flagship programme to make tax accounting easier for businesses and individuals such as sole traders. As you might guess from the name, it does this by legislating the digitalisation of tax data and submission.

Many businesses faced with complying with Making Tax Digital need to take some time to assess their current business needs, how these might change in the near to medium-term future, and figure out what technology they’ll need to comply.

The key driver behind Making Tax Digital is to move businesses, no matter their size, to some form of digital accounting. Making Tax Digital is seen as not only a major efficiency win for the enterprises concerned, but it also enables the government to streamline the tax systems that are in place today. In an ideal world, this would mean an online tax account for every business and self-employed person, for fast and efficient tax filing.

However, how businesses use IT can vary significantly, particularly as access to certain technologies is not always possible. Adopting Making Tax Digital may be a significant challenge for some enterprises, while for others it will require little more than a few tweaks to their existing systems. The vast majority of companies will, however, fall between these two extremes.

It because of this that calls have been issued to delay the rollout of Making Tax Digital, currently expected to arrive in April, something that the United Kingdom government has seemingly rejected.

Tax Shouldn’t be Taxing

How your business’ digital accounting systems will evolve will, of course, depend on many factors. Your company may already use some form of digital accounting software, so the question may be, does this application need to be upgraded to be compatible with Making Tax Digital?

With research from Spiceworks revealing 52% of businesses are still using Windows XP, this doesn’t bode well for small enterprises keeping their accounting applications up-to-date.

There is also the matter of training and competence with the applications, especially if these are new to your company. It won’t be possible to instantly use any of the cloud-based applications without a period of training. Factoring this into your transition period is vital.

Small business owners are also concerned that their level of technical knowledge won’t be good enough to avoid what could be costly mistakes when choosing new digital accounting systems.

Peter Ford, public sector industry principal at Pegasystems, says that his company is working with HMRC to develop their front facing services.

Your business’s current level of technical knowledge will determine how complex supporting Making Tax Digital will be for your company. Small businesses, in particular, will have to potentially make the most radical changes, as until now they may have simply completed their own self-assessment tax form. In the world of MTD, moving to a hosted accounting service will be unavoidable.

Understanding your Objectives

Mark Taylor, a technical manager in the Technical Innovation wing of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, explains to IT Pro that businesses need to assess their requirements before choosing an Making Tax Digital software provider.

As with all software moves, pitfalls are almost certainly going to be encountered, yet, given the fierce market competition that is developing ahead of the April deadline, vendors will be trying to make the onboarding process as simple as possible.

Approaching the transition to digital accounting and tax filing needs all the due diligence you would use when choosing any new services for your business. Today, the cloud-based accounting market has continued to expand and evolve. Stalwarts of business accounting such as Sage have been joined by newer services such as FreeAgent and Crunch. What they all attempt to do is simplify the accounting and tax filing processes all business must comply with.

As each application or service is different, one size doesn’t fit all. Take your time to talk to other businesses in your sector. Case studies and information from your business’s trade associations can often shed light on the shortcomings of some applications or services you may not be aware of. Use this knowledge to make sure you purchase the right digital services to comply with Making Tax Digital.