A successful benefits lawyer talks about building a career at the intersection of tax and employment law

By Nikki Hunt



In 1974, a new federal law set minimum standards for private industry pension plans. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, puts pension plan accountability on employers and gives participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches in contract.

“In the U.S., a particularly efficient means of delivering both retirement income and health benefits is through the employment relationship,” says Duane Morris partner John Nixon. “In order to induce employers to perform this function, there are significant federal tax benefits. However, there is a maze of rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and the Internal Revenue Code designed to insure that the benefits are delivered in an equitable and secure manner. As benefits lawyers, we guide employers and plan sponsors through that maze.”

Nixon has been working at what he calls “the intersection of tax and employment law” with Duane Morris since 2009, but was introduced to benefits law while attending the University of Michigan Law School. “I took a pension class with Leon Irish, one of the early practitioners in this field.  He told me that ERISA Law would be one of the real growth areas in the future as baby boomers got older.”  At the time, ERISA had only been in effect for a little over ten years, and while most of its practitioners were recently converted tax or employment lawyers, Nixon’s younger age was his advantage. “I didn’t really have to ‘unlearn’ anything.”

Nixon recently represented a Pensions and Investments 100 pension fund in an IRS audit—one that is, to his knowledge, the largest governmental fund ever audited by the IRS. “It was a ‘bet the farm’ matter for the client from both a political and economic standpoint. Had the IRS issued an adverse ruling on audit, the implication would have been far reaching given that the Fund covered over 200,000 active and retired members and assets in excess of $25 billion.” After nearly two years, Nixon and his team secured a “no action required” finding. The audit was never made public, and the members were never given cause for concern. “My parents were public school teachers and I was supported through college in large part by a survivor annuity from the Louisiana Teachers Retirement System.  As such, I have a personal appreciation for the continued importance of public sector pension funds.”

Nixon is also a diversity committee member at Duane Morris—focusing on associate retention and office diversity through marketing initiatives, leadership training, and attorney development—under the leadership of fellow partner and Chief Diversity Officer Nolan Atkinson. “Nolan has been a leading figure nationally in large law firm diversity,” says Nixon. “He’s done a tremendous job of educating the firm on the value of diversity, such that it’s now part of the firm’s DNA.” The firm’s annual diversity retreat brings together attorneys and chief administrative officers to assess their accomplishments and deficiencies, but Nixon sees it serve another purpose as well. “For our younger attorneys, it is an incredible venue to network across practice groups and offices, and connect to the firm as a whole. That connectedness, in my view, is the key to success in a large law firm.”

As for those not so new to the industry, Nixon’s key to success is being adaptive to change. “In 25 plus years, my practice has changed to reflect the marketplace. The work I did through the early ’90s is now largely commoditized with banks and financial institutions doing much of the document prep that was once done by law firms.” Accordingly, Nixon has evolved and now spends half of his time in the area of executive compensation. “My fundamental skill set—the interpretation of the tax code and employment laws—hasn’t changed. But now, instead of negotiating the maze on behalf of a thousand employees, it’s ‘C-suite’ executives. While there are different objectives, it’s still challenging and rewarding work.”