Preparing for a case in tax court can be overwhelming for taxpayers – especially unrepresented ones. Many don’t know where to begin, but members of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic were able to help during the IRS Atlanta Office of Chief Counsel’s inaugural Pro Bono Day on Aug. 26.
The IRS Chief Counsel’s Office in Atlanta reached out to Ted Afield, clinic director and associate clinical professor, for help organizing the event designed to help taxpayers prepare for an upcoming case before the U.S. Tax Court. Participants could talk with counsel’s attorneys, as well as representatives from the IRS’s Collections and Appeals divisions, about settling their cases. The clinic’s attorneys and students provided consultations, explained taxpayers’ rights and responsibilities and reviewed documentation supporting the claims.
“One of our goals in the clinic is to provide students with an educational experience. This means we often take longer and go to greater lengths to resolve a client’s issue so we can demonstrate best practices, review each piece of material being sent to the IRS, etc,” said Tameka E. Lester, clinical assistant professor and associate director. “Students who are with us for a semester may not see the resolution of a case they are working on. Pro Bono Day provided a setting where students were able to discuss issues with taxpayers, communicate their position with IRS Counsel, and in many cases reach a settlement.”
During Pro Bono Day, the group reviewed 26 cases and resolved 21. For the cases they couldn’t resolve, taxpayers walked away with a better understanding of their case and guidance on additional steps or documentation that may help resolve their issues.
“The critical take-away was how many people we are able to assist in a single day,” Afield said. “We helped resolve 21 cases, which has a tremendous impact on the community. The students were very impressed with how much good they could do in such a short period of time.”
William Spencer-Hampton (J.D. ’19) and Nikki Bhakhri (J.D. ’18) found the experience well worth their time.
“To see the look on someone’s face when we resolved their issue was incredible. It’s rare you get to change someone’s life in an hour of work, but we were able to do that,” Spencer-Hampton said.
“It was a great opportunity to practice quick thinking and help taxpayers with stressful issues. Between cases, the IRS representatives were happy to speak with students and give us insight to their work,” Bhakhri said.
Bonnie Miller Rich (J.D. ’94), assistant director and supervising attorney, shared that the response from participating clients was overwhelmingly positive.
“They were grateful to the people who gave up their Saturday to assist them. Even those who ultimately conceded their tax court cases felt better about the process since they were able to make an informed decision.”
Other members of the clinic that participated in Pro Bono Day include students Elijah Davis (J.D. ’18), Reena Patel (J.D. ’18), Shivani Patel (J.D. ’18), Robert Pratt (J.D. ’18), Derek Smith (J.D. ’18), and associate director Bill Timm. Many expressed interest in participating in future programs, including the Tax Court Calendar Call where the clinic and its students are available to provide free consultations as needed to pro se taxpayers.
“Based on how enthusiastic the students were about Pro Bono Day, they have started to take greater interest in participating in the calendar call program with the clinic’s attorneys,” Afield said.