By Victoria Kertz, California Business Journal.
Vanja Habekovic is fascinated by all things financial. Always has been. The tax wiz and partner at Ervin Cohen & Jessup in Beverly Hills recalls opening her first savings account with her father at the age of five.
“I have always been interested in finance and money from a young age,” she says, but what she remembers most fondly: The interest earned. “I was so excited to get the statements,” she says, “and see how much more I made through the interest.”
Obviously, it’s no surprise at all that Habekovic would go on to study economics at the University of Michigan, law at Stanford University and become a renowned tax and business attorney at a prestigious firm in one of the most glamorous cities in the world. Now she wields her expertise for a wide range of clients, including several owned by women.
Corporate attorneys are generally in demand, particularly in business-laden Los Angeles, but tax attorneys? They’re always needed, because so few people understand or even want to think about tax law on a daily basis. And when you combine both skill sets, then you have something unique and special – very special.
Habekovic’s enviable understanding of complicated tax matters is what made her choose the specialty and she recommends it to aspiring attorneys too. “It’s an area where your knowledge really matters,” she explains. “Follow the money, and you’ll understand why people are behaving the way they are.”
While she’s worked with dozens of household-name companies — at a previous firm, she was on Disney’s legal team when it acquired Pixar in 2006 — Habekovic finds working with women-owned businesses to be most satisfying. She gravitates toward them and vice-versa. Women, she says, sometimes have the self-imposed perception that they’re asking for too much in legal matters or in negotiations. Habekovic wants to be on their side. “Based on my experience, I can advise them if they’re being reasonableso that they don’t sell themselves short.” One thing she often tells them? “Don’t be afraid to ask for what’s yours. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!”
No matter the client, Habekovic’s value is extraordinary. “One of the things I bring to the table, not just for women-owned businesses but clients in general, is that I have a really large network. I’m able to leverage my network to put together a team of advisors for clients to get all their needs met.” She says that clients might require a CPA, a valuation expert or input on laws from other countries. Whatever the need, she can point them in the right direction and find the best fit.
Habekovic herself is a proactive attorney who prides herself on giving clients real answers, as opposed to legalese. “I’m willing to cut through it and say, ‘this is my advice.’”
For example, when her clients were bracing themselves for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, , Habekovic and fellow partner Gary Michel held a series of talks on the new law. They discussed major provisions and answered questions. “We had full houses for all of them.” She says the verdict on how the majority of her clients fared under the new law is still unclear, with some still under an extension for filing. “We’re still waiting,” she says.
Although waiting, you might expect, is not something she likes her clients to be exposed to. If a client confides that something is keeping them up all night, it’s in her nature to resolve that issue as soon as possible. “I tell them, ‘I can take care of it, get some rest now.’ I like making people’s lives easier in that way.”
So how does someone who works so ardently for her clients unwind? With a couple of very strategic games, of course: poker and pool. Never online poker, she relishes the opportunity to socialize with other women. “It’s a great way to stay in contact and network,” she says. “You get to learn a lot about a person when you see the way they win and lose, the way they handle pressure in a poker game. And the same goes for pool.”
Though her position as an attorney makes her a counsel to many, she views her work with business women as a kind of kinship. “It’s fun to be really invested with them. I connect with them…The best relationships are the ones where you genuinely like each other.”
And with over a decade of professional experience, she’s happy to consider herself a cheerleader now too. She offers this bit of advice to women: you don’t have to have every single thing together before you apply for something or pitch a potential investor. In fact, Habekovic suggests otherwise. “Bring your judgement and experience to show that you have the required skill set to figure things out when opportunity calls.” .
“How do you get the experience unless you bring something in to get that experience?” she asks. It’s a question worth pondering. Habekovic hopes more women will take that leap of faith in business.
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