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Pilar Mata, - Executive Director, Tax Executives Institute

Alumni spotlight

Pilar Mata

Executive Director, Tax Executives Institute

After building a practice in state and local tax law, Pilar joined the Tax Executives Institute (TEI) in 2015, drawn by the organization’s policy work and support for in-house tax professionals. She became Executive Director last year.

Where did you grow up and where did you study?

I went to high school in Washington DC and to college in California, where I got my Bachelor’s in Business and Administration from the University of San Diego, my Master’s in Science in Finance at San Diego State University, and my law degree (J.D.) at Berkeley. I practiced law in San Francisco in the 2000s before coming back to DC.

What made you want to go into law in the first place?

Well, I actually started my career in accounting and finance. Then I spoke with a tax lawyer as I was considering law school and thought this would be an interesting area and an opportunity to combine both areas of interest. The main question, after law school, was what kind of tax I wanted to practice.

Ultimately, I settled on state and local tax with a focus on litigation, which was – and is – very interesting because it involves understanding the laws in different jurisdictions, developing strategies for forming and arguing cases, and understanding the business and financial operations in that process.

Why did you move back to Washington DC?

I started practicing in San Francisco, and moved back to DC to be closer to my family. I was intrigued by the practice that Jeff Friedman and Eric Tresh were building at Eversheds Sutherland. They had a very unique and collaborative approach to working with clients and client development.

Joining them was the right decision for me. I learned to practice law and write memos and briefs when I was at law school and at my first job, but it wasn’t until coming to Eversheds Sutherland that I truly understood client relations, public speaking, and also just becoming a better professional myself.

I felt very invested in the practice from the day that I started. I wasn’t a partner, but I participated in calls every morning with the leaders of the practice to talk about what everyone was working on. We had a goal to really serve our clients well and to be a firm that functioned much differently with their clients.

Can you say a little more about that culture?

There was a real investment in people and relationships, both with clients and with each other. It was a very immersive experience. I loved what I did while I was at the firm. It was really fun to be with smart, passionate people.

Which other former colleagues stick out fondly in your memory?

Jeff Friedman has been an incredible mentor and friend, to this day. Dan Schlueter is great; I really enjoyed working on litigation matters with him. The staff, especially Debbie Manders, Kerrie Mackey, and Carolyn Melrose, is outstanding. And Todd Lard is a phenomenal professional and an incredible person, whom we hired recently to join us at TEI as state tax counsel.

Why did you leave in 2015 to join TEI?

I was looking to do something different, and, with a one-year-old son, for a better balance in my life, to be frank. TEI offered me an interesting position, which involved an expanded set of skills.

It was a chance to shift my role from doing controversy work to policy work on legislative matters and amicus briefs. It was a very easy – and pretty much seamless – transition for me because many of TEI’s members were my clients at the firm, so I was within the same community that I was familiar with.

What does the TEI do?

TEI is a global association of in-house tax professionals, comprising nearly 6,000 members from 3,000 of the largest companies in North America, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

It serves the professional and educational needs of in-house tax professionals. More broadly, TEI is dedicated to the development of sound tax policy, compliance with and uniform enforcement of tax laws, and minimization of compliance and administrative costs to the mutual benefit of taxpayers and government.

Importantly, TEI is an organization that is for all in-house tax professionals around the world. That is another element that interested me. It’s neat to see issues that transcend different countries and how they are addressing those issues at different stages of the process. There are things that countries can learn from each other as well.

Initially, I joined as tax counsel and then I became director of operations in December 2020, where I was responsible for TEI’s day-to-day operations and led the Institute’s team of professionals. I became Executive Director in June 2021.

What does your role as Executive Director involve?

I’m responsible for leading our staff and basically executing on the mission. We are a member association, so a lot of is driven by the needs of our members, particularly as we navigate the pandemic. I work closely with the Executive Committee and the Board.

TEI also has really strong relationships with different governments, whether it’s the IRS, Treasury, the Canadian government, and the EU. Each legal staff member has a subject area of responsibility and primary responsibility for working on advocacy matters.

We provide continuing education on technical matters and also on professional development, helping to ensure that our members have the information and skills they need to succeed in their careers. Our goal is to create a community where people have a network of resources as an in-house tax professional, whether they work for a large company or only have one or two people.

We work very closely with many law firms, accounting firms, and tax technology firms. Eversheds Sutherland is one of our biggest sponsors.

Do you miss being on the legal frontline?

Yes and no. Although I miss the regular daily practice of law, and the excitement of litigation, I am passionate about the vision for the TEI. It’s an incredible opportunity to focus on what this organization will do for people as we go forward.

What is your approach to leadership?

I won’t always have the answer to everything. So I look to have a strong team around me, who come up with different alternatives. Collectively, we can come to the best result.

If you would like to add Pila Mata to your network, you can connect with her via LinkedIn.