It’s April, and although the weather may be unpredictable, one thing, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, is certain: Tax Day.

But while tax season might not inspire the same delight as the arrival of spring, for students and leaders in Harvard Law School’s Tax Litigation Clinic, it is an exciting — and busy — time of the year.

“Unusually, the United States Tax Court is in Boston three times this spring, and as a result, we have had a flood of phone calls as well as direct referrals from the court,” says Audrey Patten, the clinic’s interim director and a lecturer on law at Harvard.

Part of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, the Tax Litigation Clinic helps low-income taxpayers in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service or the state of Massachusetts.

“The goal of the clinic is to use whatever procedural tools are at hand to further low-income taxpayers’ rights while giving students the opportunity to manage their own real-world case dockets,” says Patten.

Under Patten’s supervision, clinic students triage phone calls from taxpayers in need, help people contest taxes they believe they should not have to pay, represent clients in Tax Court, and advocate for changes to tax policy that could benefit those with lower incomes.

Areeb Alam ’24 says that many of the clinic’s cases deal with contesting liability — in other words, arguing that the tax is not actually owed — or dealing with collectability. “As a low-income taxpayer clinic, a lot of our clients are indigent and can’t pay taxes,” he says. “We argue that although they may owe the taxes, it would be unjust or too difficult to collect from them.”

Issues in tax law often reflect sociological and economic trends or changing governmental priorities. For example, who gets to claim a child tax credit, which state is owed income taxes for a remote employee, or whether a worker is considered an independent contractor or staff member.

Helena Guenther ’25 is currently working on a case challenging a taxpayer’s worker classification status. Cases like these can be risky, she says, because the outcome can affect tax liability for both the worker and their employer. “A lot of people don’t want to proceed with a case for fear of their employer retaliating against them, often because they’re still working that job and they can’t afford to lose it,” she says.

But, Guenther adds, a win for her client could mean a more favorable tax environment for independent workers, who now make up about 36 percent of the American workforce, and who do jobs like food delivery, driving for apps like Uber or Lyft, or freelancing.

Supporting clients

Often, people reach out to the clinic after they start receiving collections notices or letters in the mail about tax debts, says Alam. If the clinic can help, students meet with their clients to better understand their situation and possible solutions, including ways to reduce or even eliminate the debt.

The work can be immediately gratifying compared to other areas of law, according to Alam, because the government is often interested in finding mutually beneficial solutions. “The government taxing authorities are not as aggressive as private debt collectors,” he says. “Sometimes, all it takes is knowing and following appropriate procedures to stop the IRS or Department of Revenue from seizing a bank account, for example.”

“Directly assisting people with tax problems is such an important part of community development, community support, and poverty reduction … These issues can put a lot of stress on people and working with them to mitigate that can really have a catalytic effect on their lives.”

Sean O’Connell ’25

In addition to working directly with tax authorities, clinic students also represent their clients in Tax Court. In some cases, clinic students offer on-the-spot representation to individuals who do not already have a lawyer, which can make for fast-paced — and thrilling — lawyering, the students say.

“The clinic tries to help as many people as we can,” says Alam, who recently attended Tax Court with Patten. “That includes offering ad hoc legal advice or representation, sometimes for people we just met that same day.”

At first blush, the clinic’s work might seem dispassionate, but in fact, it has an important social justice component, the students argue.

“Directly assisting people with tax problems is such an important part of community development, community support, and poverty reduction,” says Sean O’Connell ’25. “These issues can put a lot of stress on people and working with them to mitigate that can really have a catalytic effect on their lives.”

Guenther says that many low-income taxpayers rely on their refunds to pay for necessities, so when that money is garnished to offset existing debts, “it can be a huge financial burden, and a big source of anxiety.”

When the clinic pulls off a win, the impact is often immediate, adds Alam. “It’s easy for us as practitioners to help by trying to pause collections while searching for alternatives. That might allow someone to make a mortgage payment and avoid foreclosure.”

O’Connell says that in many cases, clients are dealing with more than just taxes. Because the clinic is part of Harvard Law’s network of clinical programs, the student attorneys can also connect them to other avenues of support, such as the Housing Law Clinic or Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic.

“It’s just not just about taxes. It’s about poverty, about access, sometimes about family matters like divorce or custody,” he says. “The tax issue kind of belies an economic issue that is all-impactful on the client’s life.”

From theory to practice

Alam, who plans to practice tax law after graduation, says that the clinic has made him “much more fluent” in tax issues.

“Procedure matters so much at our clinic, and it isn’t covered in most tax law courses,” he says. “In class, we take the fact pattern for granted. But in the tax clinic, finding and proving the facts can be the hardest part. That’s where the clinic does good work: helping clients navigate the procedural and practical elements of tax law.”

Guenther also hopes to go into tax law. She says that she has not only gained practical lawyering skills through her work in the clinic — she’s also enjoyed working directly with clients.

“Some of our clients are very knowledgeable about their tax situation and others aren’t, so it requires thinking about how to adjust what you’re saying to relay information in an efficient and digestible way to each client,” she says. “Ultimately, speaking with clients is a very gratifying process, and feeling like you can be of service to them and provide help for them is something that’s been really great.”

“In the tax clinic, finding and proving the facts can be the hardest part. That’s where the clinic does good work: helping clients navigate the procedural and practical elements of tax law.”

Areeb Alam ’24

O’Connell says that he has benefitted from learning how to manage multiple clients with complex cases at the same time. “You have to learn how to interface with clients with very different issues. You have to be able to effectively draw out the facts,” he says. “Being able to mentally juggle and compartmentalize all that, so that you can be effective in addressing client problems, is something you can only get in direct practice experience.”

Even students with passions other than tax law have something to gain from the clinic, adds O’Connell. “My interest is in international finance and sovereign debt restructuring. So, not exactly linear with tax. But in both areas, you’re trying to leverage economic analysis to some degree, and also legal proceduralism, in order to get your client — and in this case, the clients are particularly sympathetic — the best possible outcome.”

Of course, the outcome is not always rosy. But Alam says the clinic has helped him learn to deal with those situations, too. “Unfortunately, there’s no way around having to deliver bad news to clients sometimes,” he says. “But with practice, I’ve become more comfortable at it, and I think it’s made me a better attorney going forward.”

Advocating for systemic change

Beyond its support for individual taxpayers, the clinic and its students hope to shape policies that could make the system better for everyone. “We work with the IRS, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, and the Tax Court, to help advocate for clients and push for change at a systemic level to make change happen,” says O’Connell, who recently wrote and submitted a “notice and comment” to the Tax Court on behalf of the clinic.

In the brief, O’Connell argued that tax courts can — and should — expand the use of “equitable tolling,” a concept applied in other courts that would allow more discretion for filing deadlines. “It sounded like quite a dry subject to me at first,” he says. “But you can imagine there are many circumstances where clients might miss deadlines, often related to access to justice or socioeconomic issues.”

He continued, “These dry procedural things can have quite a big impact on the nature of a case and on clients’ outcomes.”

And whether through advice, direct client representation, or advocacy work, it’s those outcomes that Patten and her students are ultimately after.

“There’s a large amount of mental weight taken off an individual’s shoulder when they’re receiving support,” O’Connell says. “It can really be freeing for someone who has been dealing with this issue for weeks, or months, or even years.”

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