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Dean's Desk: Anatomy of a decision to start a tax clinic

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dean-newton-notre-dameNotre Dame Law students will soon have the opportunity to learn tax law by practicing it under the close supervision of full-time expert faculty. It is an exciting development for all of us at the law school. Moreover, at a time of straitened budgets, we have secured financing from the IRS for the clinic, a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Law school decision-making is not always swift, because it is collaborative. Here’s how we went from idea to reality in creating the new clinic.

Our annual surveys of the graduating class revealed that students wanted more clinical opportunities. Even though we had grown our externship program considerably, providing a number of increased opportunities for experiential learning (and thus meeting the new ABA standard requiring at least six credit hours of experiential courses), clinics are still regarded as providing an unparalleled opportunity to represent clients in a small law firm setting under the supervision of a licensed attorney. We have four clinics at the Law School, but unmet student demand for clinical training remained strong.

Thus, we began to consider options. If the best solution was to establish a brand new clinic, we asked, what area of law should be the focus of the clinic? To answer that question, we needed to know what additional clinical training would most benefit our students, the kinds of legal services needs that were going unmet in our area, and last, but not least, how we would pay for it (with an 8-1 student-faculty ratio, clinics are expensive).

Our Clinical Law Center housed two transactional clinics (the Community Development Clinic and the IP & Entrepreneurship Clinic), one mediation clinic and one litigation clinic (the Economic Justice Clinic). I had had some previous experience with Low Income Taxpayer Clinics from my time at the University of Connecticut School of Law and recalled how well that clinic had been received by students and the public. I called Diana Leyden, who had taught the clinic at UConn and who will soon become a special trial judge for the U.S. Tax Court. (Congratulations, Diana!) A strong proponent of tax clinics, Diana suggested that a LITC at Notre Dame would have the potential of attracting both students who were primarily interested in obtaining litigation experience as well as those who were primarily interested in tax law itself.

Next, we needed to consider the South Bend community’s needs. We have a strong tax faculty at NDLS: Matt Barrett, Mike Kirsch and Lloyd Mayer. Based on informal discussions with those professors, there appeared to be both student interest and a community need. For example, one of the little-known problems facing minority communities is the ready availability of unprincipled tax preparers who provide substandard advice to low-income residents. Many victims cannot afford a lawyer. In addition, there is a substantial Spanish-speaking community in South Bend that we have not been serving as well as we would like. With this information, we concluded that a low-income taxpayer clinic would be welcomed in South Bend.

Concluding that there is a need was only one part of the analysis. Next we needed to determine if starting a new clinic was feasible. Last spring, I asked Professor Matt Barrett and Professor Bob Jones, the Associate Dean for Experiential Programs, to examine this question.

This was a big request. Matt and Bob benchmarked the tax clinics at other schools to learn about what was working and what was not. They undertook demographic research on the Michiana area and met with community organizations and other interested parties such as the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. And, they talked to the other low-income taxpayer clinics in Indiana and Michigan to gauge how we might fit in as part of a network of clinics (we wanted to make sure we and the other clinics could refer cases to each other when appropriate for geographic or other reasons). Finally, we needed to consult with members of the local bar to ascertain their interest in serving on a pro bono panel to which we could refer complex cases.

I also asked Matt and Bob to make a recommendation about how the clinic should be structured and whether we should hire a full-time director. But even with all this information, we still needed to determine if we could secure funding for a tax clinic from the IRS’s Low Income Tax Clinic grant program.

Congress created the program in 1998 “to provide access to representation for low-income taxpayers, so that achieving a correct outcome in an IRS dispute does not depend on the taxpayer’s ability to pay for representation, and to educate individuals for whom English is a second language about their rights and responsibilities as taxpayers.” The grant applicationprocess is complicated and time-intensive, but with the valuable assistance of the university’s Office of Research we submitted our application in early 2015.

Then in October we learned that ours was one of a handful of proposals for new clinics nationwide to win funding for the coming year. “Suddenly” we had both a carefully researched clinic proposal (which by this time included plans for a full-time director) and a source of funding. We were ready to make our case to the full faculty. Our faculty reviews proposals for new courses — including clinical programs — to ensure the academics are of the highest caliber. We knew that a detailed and realistic plan for the classroom component of the clinic experience would be key to winning faculty approval, and we worked hard on it. Our faculty approved the plan in early December and authorized us to enroll up to six third-year students in our first session.

Then we had to speed things up.

First, the IRS requires grant winners to engage in a number of activities (including a four-day conference in Washington, D.C.) before opening their clinic doors this fall. Second, we still had to find and hire our clinic’s first director. Acting on behalf of the Appointments Committee, Bob and Matt launched a nationwide search, setting Feb. 1 as the deadline for applications and March as the time for the finalists’ on-campus interviews. Fortunately, we had a number of very strong candidates, including our hire, Patrick Thomas, who had just completed an ABA Section on Taxation Public Service Fellowship at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis. He started at the Law School on May 16. 

As for our students’ response, the six available fall openings filled quickly. Three of these six students speak Spanish, as does Professor Thomas, who is bilingual. We are looking for great things from this clinic.•

Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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