Ernie Perez (J.D. ’92) often jokes that he wanted to go north for college, so he came to Atlanta. Perez immigrated from Cuba to Miami with his mother at the age of 3 and always had a knack for numbers. It was while he was majoring in economics at the University of Georgia that it first occurred to him to go to law school. He was taking a Legal Studies undergraduate course, and his professor/mentor encouraged him to take a look at Georgia State.
He took her advice and found a passion for tax law after taking classes with Professor Emeritus Ronald W. Blasi, who founded the college’s Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic. An internship with the Chief Counsel’s Office of the IRS sealed the deal.
His first job out of law school was with Arthur Andersen LLP, where he stayed for almost a decade. He had just made partner– and then Enron happened. His days became chaotic, filled with trying to place clients at other firms, but he learned a lot from that experience.
“Most of the people at Arthur Andersen were good people, but that one client and the one issue with Enron brought down 85,000 people globally,” Perez said. “It taught me how to define your character in moments of crisis and about how important integrity and reputation are. It also taught me a lot about human nature, and how people react when things don’t go well.”
After leaving Arthur Andersen, he worked at Deloitte for a few years, until he had the opportunity to help start the Miami operation of Alvarez & Marsal. He is currently the CEO of A&M’s tax practice where he leads a team of 400 people. On a typical day, he’s faced with dozens of important decisions, from client relations to personnel management. Before COVID-19, a large part of his tax practice was mergers & acquisitions. Since the advent of COVID-19, they are seeing a lot of bankruptcy taxation, because many businesses are suffering, especially retail. They are also looking at tough legal questions in contract law, such as how terms apply in the midst of a pandemic.
“I believe part of my role is to keep people motivated and successful,” Perez said. “As a leader, you can see a person’s strengths and make sure they’re connected where they can do their best. I also think it’s important to maintain a client base because it keeps you grounded in what’s happening in the market.”
In addition to the work at the firm, Perez gives back to his community. One way is by serving on the College of Law Board of Visitors with his friend and law school classmate Steve Najjar (J.D. ’92).
“When I look back, there are people who took time to mentor me,” Perez said. “All of those skills I picked up in law school set me up for success when I started work. Now that I’m established, I want to give back. We certainly didn’t get here on our own. There were people who mentored us and took interest in us.”
Interview by Kelundra Smith