Tax program director sports strong business background

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Professor Gina Torielli, director of the Graduate (LL.M.) Tax Program at Cooley Law School, brings a vast background of expertise to share with her students who have the honor of being taught by a woman who was named in 2003 as one of the "top 10 businesswomen of the year" by the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners; one of the "95 most powerful women in Michigan" by Corp! magazine in 2002; and one of 10 Michigan "Lawyers of the Year" in 1998 by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

But it was certainly no easy path to the top--and Torielli almost took an entirely different career path.

The first person in her family to obtain a college degree, she set her sights on being a lawyer from the age of 15, when she worked in her family's restaurant near the courthouse in Danbury, Conn.

"My Dad got me involved in a political campaign when I was 12, and I remained interested in American politics," she says. "I was always a big reader, and had a strong sense of justice. Lawyers would lunch at my family's restaurant, and I was encouraged by them to consider becoming an attorney."

But for a while, law seemed a distant dream.

"I thought about continuing in the family business, an Italian American restaurant. I used to help my grandfather out when I was six," she says.

When she selected colleges to apply to, Torielli chose those with strong restaurant management programs. Her father encouraged her to do something else, so by the time she went to college, she declared a pre-law major, earning her bachelor's degree in political science, with high honors from Michigan State University.

"I actually ran the business for almost three years, when my Dad became ill in 1983," she says. "In 1986, I started thinking I would never go to law school --I had been a legislative staffer and lobbyist, before taking over the restaurant--and my partner encouraged me to go to law school. Harvard accepted me at age 32."

She earned her J.D. cum laude, and worked with the Harvard Negotiation Project, and as a research assistant to Professor Bernard Wolfman. Her first year study group included President Barack Obama.

Enjoying the intellectual challenge of tax law, Torielli had the opportunity to practice with Dykema Gossett in its Lansing office and where she still does consulting work.

After six years at Dykema, she moved to Howard & Howard, a firm of more than 90 attorneys. Elected president and CEO in 1998, she served a five-year term as the first woman managing partner of a major Michigan law firm. She led a large legal team in the development of a distinguished practice, and she and firm members counseled businesses, banks and public sector clients, including several Fortune 500 firms. Her experience as managing partner gave her real world experience with ethical and practice management issues in a law firm setting, experience she draws on in her teaching and writing about the ethical standards of tax practice.

Her own practice centered in taxation and public finance, and she advised many nonprofit organizations and governmental entities on issues relating to tax exemption, tax-exempt financing, and state and federal tax issues. A popular speaker on topics relating to law firm management, she also conducts workshops on negotiation skills development.

Her scholarship is an effort to provide guidance to practitioners on the intricacies of federal tax exemption for municipal bonds.

She edited the book "Real Property Taxes in Michigan," that recently won an Award of Outstanding Achievement from the Association for Continuing Legal Education.

In 2004, Torielli was appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the board of Michigan Higher Education Assistance Authority. She also serves on the boards of several charitable organizations, and this year chairs the State Bar of Michigan's Taxation Section. She was a volunteer consultant at the Michigan Law Revision Commission, director at National Wholesale Druggists Association, project manager, Medicaid at Pracon, Inc., Legislative Director at Liz Robbins Associates, and served on the Democratic Research Staff of the Michigan House of Representatives as a research analyst.

Torielli, who joined the Cooley faculty in 2003, teaches the Tax Practice and Procedure, Standards and Ethics of Tax Practice, and Tax Exempt Organizations courses in the Graduate Tax Program; and the Taxation and Wills Estates and Trusts courses in the J.D. program. She was the initial supervising professor for Cooley's Estate Planning Clinic at the Auburn Hills campus.

"Because I was the first person in my family to go to college, I relied heavily on mentors outside my family. I was drawn to Cooley because many students here are in the same boat," she says. "I enjoy helping students find and connect to their dream practice, especially when it is tax law."

Away from work, Torielli enjoys cooking, canning, and gardening.

"I'm a strong proponent of eating from local producers and it's fun to discover all Michigan offers in that regard."

Published: Thu, Jul 14, 2011

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