By Jonathan Holbrook, J.D. ’16
When I began working in Professor Keith Fogg’s Federal Tax Clinic, I already knew that I was interested in tax and would be practicing in the field after graduation. But I did not know how the clinic would operate, nor exactly how my clinical experience would relate to future practice. I now move forward from a semester in the Tax Clinic with three major takeaways: a better idea of how part of the IRS functions; a set of practical lawyering skills; and an understanding of how to use those skills to help low-income taxpayers.
Working with the Federal Tax Clinic meant learning a great deal about how the IRS works, the pressures it is under, and how taxpayers interface with its system. The cases I worked on offered an opportunity to interact with IRS employees and to strategize about how best to persuade them of our client’s case. It was particularly interesting to discuss clinical work with other students in the Clinic. Together, we were able to put into practice what we learned in the Clinic’s accompanying class sessions.
As part of the Clinic we were also able to attend the Tax Court when it visited Boston. We observed and assisted as Professor Keith Fogg helped pro se taxpayers prepare their cases. It was a valuable opportunity to see cases at a different stage than we saw in our day-to-day clinical work, as well as to get a taste of tax litigation.
Working with the Federal Tax Clinic also helped me develop practical lawyering skills and, in particular, a sense of legal judgment. In my classes thus far, examinations have typically involved synthesizing a defined set of rules, then applying them to discrete scenarios. It is a relatively straightforward process to determine whether the answer is “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” In the real world, some clients’ issues match that model. With some base level of knowledge, it is possible to mechanically match the scenario up to the rules to produce the right answer. But the most interesting questions are those for which there is no preexisting, easily-accessible answer. In my experience with the clinic, I ran into many such situations. I suspect that is because: (1) low income taxpayers typically settle their cases with the IRS before litigation; and (2) low-income taxpayers have relatively few interested commentators producing secondary source materials relating to their problems. Thus, working with the Clinic meant often making judgment calls in filling out forms, drafting letters and offering advice. By the end of the semester, I had become much more comfortable making such judgment calls.
A final key aspect of the clinical experience was learning from the clients. Hearing about their multiple jobs, disabilities, split-up families, struggles to pay or receive child support and incomprehensible communications from the IRS made real what had previously only been a theoretical understanding of the challenges facing low-income taxpayers. Helping the Clinic’s clients work through their issues with the tax system and come into compliance felt very meaningful.
In sum, the fall semester was a very challenging and educational experience. The Clinic let me do more than I thought was possible. Whatever path my career takes, I’ve gained the skills to be a better lawyer and the tools to effectively help low-income taxpayers through pro bono work. I am grateful to the school and to Professor Fogg for making the Clinic possible.