Introducing Steven Dean

Steven Dean, NYU Law’s most recently hired professor of tax law and the new faculty director of the Graduate Tax Program, usually wears a jacket and tie. But if he did adopt a more casual look, he confesses, he’d be wearing fan gear for a favorite team. “It’s good that I don’t—but I could reasonably have T-shirts that feature some of the faculty here,” Dean says of his fellow tax professors. “I am that excited about them.”

Steven Dean
Steven Dean

Dean comes to NYU Law from Brooklyn Law School, where he served as vice dean (yes, Vice Dean Dean) and taught federal income tax, corporate tax, international tax, and tax policy. He has a particular fondness for international tax, which has been prominent in his dozen-plus journal articles, as well as corporate tax, which he calls “elegant.” He explains: “When I teach the class, you start, the levels all build on one another, and by the end you have a symphony. The way all the pieces fit together I find quite extraordinary. I mean, tax-free reorganizations—awesome.”

More recently, the focus of his scholarship has expanded to include social enterprises, for-profit businesses that aim to address social problems traditionally tackled by nonprofit institutions. Social Enterprise Law: Trust, Public Benefit and Capital Markets (Oxford University Press, 2017), a book he co-wrote with former Brooklyn Law colleague Dana Brakman Reiser, is the most extensive work yet in their series of co-written scholarly publications focused on social enterprises. A side benefit of his recent move, Dean says, is being able to tap into NYU Law’s leadership in the social enterprise space, exemplified by the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship and the Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business.

One reason Dean finds tax interesting, he says, is that “tax rules are the way we direct private capital toward public benefits. And that’s the reason social enterprise is interesting to me, because it really is thinking about the same questions. How should the law encourage, require, incentivize private capital to serve the public interest?” About five years ago, he reached out to Brakman Reiser about her pioneering legal scholarship on social enterprises. The two met to discuss an article she was developing about what was missing from the social enterprise law conversation. “I thought I knew what needed to be added,” Brakman Reiser recalls, “but I didn’t have a lot of corporate finance experience to draw on in making the argument that I wanted to make, and Steve did. So we just decided to work together.”

Dean’s first intellectual love was not tax, however, but economics. After graduating from Williams College cum laude with a political economy degree, he spent a year with National Economic Research Associates, an economic consulting group in White Plains, then became a transfer pricing research assistant at KPMG. There, he developed a fascination with transfer pricing and tax law: “I was totally amazed that economists were just basically hired guns for the lawyers, who were doing the thinking.”

Dean headed to Yale Law School, where he begged (in vain) for permission to take international tax concurrently with the federal income tax course he took as a 1L. By the time he graduated, he had taken corporate tax as well as international tax. As an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he focused mostly on capital market transactions: debt and equity offerings, syndicated bank loans, and mergers and acquisitions. Dean then made a lateral move to Debevoise & Plimpton, where his practice had more of a private equity orientation that included venture capital and leveraged buyouts.

While at Debevoise, Dean took tax LLM classes at NYU Law. One evening, he was working with a group of partners on a private equity M&A deal when a particular point prompted him to soliloquize about variable rate debt instruments and their taxation. One of the duly astonished partners, David Schnabel ’92, LLM ’93, asked Dean where he had acquired such granular knowledge as an associate. Dean said that he’d learned it in an NYU Law classroom earlier that day.

VIDEO: Steven Dean offers advice for students interested in tax law

“We had a super-complicated debt instrument,” recalls Schnabel, now a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell, “and he was able to quickly and accurately reduce the tax calculation to a spreadsheet, which I remember being quite impressed by.” Dean’s zealous virtuosity while working on original issue discount (OID) spreadsheets prompted another colleague to coin a sobriquet for him: OIDean.

“Even among tax practitioners, my enthusiasm for OID was unusual,” Dean acknowledges, adding, “Some of the most creative stuff I did was with OID. In a good way.”

The creativity Dean honed in private tax practice paid dividends years later in his collaboration with Brakman Reiser, who explains, “I could tell him, ‘Well, what we need to finance these socially driven enterprises is an investment product that’s going to be self-enforcing,’ and he would say, ‘OK, well, here are five self-enforcing investment products, and let’s talk through how they work, and you can tell me which one might work for this particular purpose.’”

In addition to Social Enterprise Law, Dean and Brakman Reiser have published four articles and a book chapter. Currently, they are developing their second book, For-Profit Philanthropy, which argues that the law of philanthropy must evolve to keep up with the increasing use of for-profit practices in the philanthropic sector.

“Working with him on writing projects is just incredibly enjoyable because he makes everything very accessible, particularly in the book project,” Brakman Reiser says. “The tone of the book has to a huge amount been determined by Steve’s writing style and his ability to connect with practitioners and laypeople as well as legal scholars.”

As Dean notes, he spent his early years in two different tax havens, the Bahamas and Delaware. His parents met at the University of North Dakota, then relocated to the Bahamas, where Dean’s father had grown up. Before he left for boarding school in Delaware at the age of 15, Dean and his three older sisters enjoyed a childhood full of sailing, swimming, windsurfing, scuba diving—and baking. The baking was a relatively easy avocation to continue in New York. Dean’s current specialties, which can often be found in his office, include double chocolate cookies, cherry almond biscotti, and granola bars. “I don’t like sitting down,” says Dean. “So baking is a way I can just unwind without actually sitting down. It’s fun and relaxing and entirely predictable.”

Dean commutes to his new office in Vanderbilt Hall from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Wingate, who is an associate professor of fine arts at St. Francis College, and their 10-year-old son, who not only sets Dean’s baking agenda but has also shared with Dean his passion for ornithology. Dean’s computer desktop image is a finely wrought color pencil drawing of a Cape May warbler that his son made for him as a Christmas present.

Dean is palpably proud also of the Graduate Tax Program that he now heads. “One of the great things about being in this position is that there are no gaps to fill, problems to solve, anything like that,” he says. “It’s really just a question of understanding how a program that’s been great for almost 75 years will remain great at 100. That, to me, is the question. What will the world’s best tax program look like when it celebrates its centennial?”

Posted January 31, 2019