Saba Ashraf sees opportunities for client development at Ballard Spahr, which is not usually the case for tax lawyers supporting a corporate practice.
Saba Ashraf sees opportunities for client development at Ballard Spahr, which is not usually the case for tax lawyers supporting a corporate practice. (John Disney/Daily Report)

Tax attorney Saba Ashraf has joined Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr as a partner from McKenna Long & Aldridge, where she led the tax practice.

Ashraf, 43, said Ballard sought a mid-career tax lawyer to support the firm’s corporate lawyers. That’s an opportunity, she said, because tax lawyers are becoming a dying breed at large firms.

“A traditional, pure tax lawyer is harder to find,” she said. “So most firms are hanging onto their tax people in their late 50s and early 60s. Ballard foresaw that coming and was looking for a mid-career [tax] person.”

Ashraf said she will work with Ballard’s corporate lawyers on transactions across the firm, not just in Atlanta. “What I didn’t want was to be the satellite office tax person,” she said. “It means I will travel a lot more, but I’m happy to because I’m working with lawyers firmwide.”

After joining Ballard last week, she was off to Philadelphia this week to meet lawyers at the firm’s headquarters.

Ashraf has practiced in Atlanta since 1997, first at Alston & Bird, then Troutman Sanders and then at McKenna, which recruited her in 2011 to head its tax practice.

The tax groups at large Atlanta-based firms are smaller than when she moved here, Ashraf said, and she hypothesized that tax departments may have been disproportionately affected by the recession. “To have a strong tax group, you need strong corporate and real estate groups.”

Ballard’s local managing partner Han Choi said Ashraf’s recruitment is part of the firm’s push to make the Atlanta office full service. Ballard established an Atlanta presence in 2008 by acquiring local intellectual property boutique Needle & Rosenberg. Choi, a public finance lawyer, joined the firm in 2012 from Schiff Hardin with the mandate of broadening the office’s practice capabilities beyond IP law.

“Saba’s presence in Atlanta is fantastic. It helps us build momentum for our overall growth as we become more and more of a broader, full-service office,” Choi said, “It helps with our business and finance practice and in attracting other great laterals. So she fits a lot of pieces for us locally and nationally.”

Choi said the Atlanta office’s lawyer head count has grown by 60 percent in the last two years, to 47 lawyers. About one-third of its lawyers practice in areas other than IP.

In 2007, the Daily Report named Ashraf one of its On the Rise lawyers—a recognition of up-and-coming lawyers under 40—citing her combination of tax expertise and people skills.

Ashraf has worked on several large transactions over her career, such as the $8 billion merger of paper companies Bowater and Abitibi-Consolidated and a $6 billion, three-way merger among Canadian mining companies Northern Orion Resources, Yamana Gold and U.S. miner Meridian Gold—both while she was at Troutman Sanders.

At McKenna she advised Home Depot and Reed Elsevier on tax aspects related to their acquisitions of several companies and counseled TitleMax on the tax aspects of redeeming contingent payment debt instrument notes and PIK notes, and then issuing about $500 million in new notes.

Ashraf said her move to Ballard was not related to McKenna’s abortive merger with global megafirm Dentons last fall. Ballard “does the kind of work I wanted to do and has the kind of clients I wanted,” she said, adding that she worked with Ballard’s tax lawyers on deals when she was at Troutman and found it to be a pleasant experience. “They were really good lawyers and knew how to communicate.”

An email to the head of McKenna’s corporate department, Wayne Bradley, was forwarded to a firm spokesman who declined to comment on Ashraf’s departure.

Choi said Ashraf has client and business development skills, which is not always the case for tax lawyers serving a firm’s transactional practice. “In the current marketplace you have to generate business instead of being a tax lawyer who can just do the tax work,” he said.

While tax attorneys typically work with a firm’s institutional clients rather than developing their own, Ashraf said she brings clients with her, including AMEC, a British engineering and project management firm for the oil and gas industries.

She said one of Ballard’s draws was its emphasis on sharing clients. “Every firm says this but a lot do not mean it,” Ashraf said, adding that at many firms a lawyer’s clients “never become enmeshed with the firm” and instead are siloed.

“Ballard is really big on making clients that come in the firm’s clients, instead of the lawyer’s clients,” she said. “For tax that’s great. … What we do is so intertwined with the firm’s practice.”