Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by David Sams

We welcome David Sams who directs the Community Tax Law Project in Richmond, Virginia. David reflects on Nina’s impact as it impacts his current position as head of the organization she founded. Keith

What is it like to walk in the steps of a tireless champion of taxpayers’ rights, an intellectual giant, a tax legend, Nina Olson? Intimidating would be one way to describe being the director of the Community Tax Law Project (CTLP), the clinic Nina started in 1992 and used as her initial incubator of her ideas, energy, and passion for fighting for the rights of low-income taxpayers. However, I feel that the word “challenging” is much more appropriate given the legacy Nina created at CTLP.

As those of you who have attended an LITC annual conference know well, Nina Olson is all about challenge. She challenges the clinics to get the best solution for our clients, not just a good solution. She challenges the IRS to administer our tax system in a manner that is fair and just. She challenges Congress to make legislative decisions that best serve the taxpayer. Why am I using the present tense when describing Nina’s challenges? My choice of verb tense is because I know Nina’s legacy will not end when her employment with the federal government ends.

Has Nina ever challenged me personally? My answer is yes, but not directly (unless you count those inspirational speeches at the LITC conference). When Nina became the National Taxpayer Advocate, she always maintained a professional distance from CTLP, and rightly so. However, her challenge exists all around me every day, literally and figuratively. Literally, I sit at her old desk that she purchased in a rush to spend her first grant award money (it is a very stylish desk, stop by and see it sometime). In my filing cabinets, I have many of her old notes on the establishment of not only CTLP but also what would become the LITC program, as we now know it. Did you know that Nina Olsen also ran a law journal? She sure did, namely “The Community Tax Law Report.” There are multiple volumes. Feeling challenged yet? The physical copies of the “Report” are on our shelves, stop by and flip through an issue.

Did you also know that Nina was a stellar fundraising executive? Before she began convincing Congress to fund the LITC program, Nina was making some great “asks” of Richmond’s most established foundations. We still have the letters and responses. Some of these organizations still support CTLP in some way or another.

Not only did Nina have a solid fundraising acumen, she also excelled generally in the “ask.” Many of CTLP’s former board members and supporters have told me the story of their first interaction with Nina, who would never accept “no” as an answer to whatever she was “asking” from them. Most of these high-powered tax professionals became Nina’s life-long friends, colleagues, and admirers, and they remind me of this on a regular basis. Literally, I cannot walk into my office without the feeling of “do more”, “do it better”, and most importantly “make a difference” emanating from the furniture and the fixtures. Did I mention that we have some of Nina’s old lamps?

While I joke around about the furniture, I have been challenged by Nina on a deeper level. I had heard Nina speak a few years before I began working at CTLP. I knew she was a big deal in the tax world, but her work with LITCs was only remotely related to the work I was doing in private practice. When I accepted my position at CTLP, all of that changed. My predecessor, Elaine Javonovich, a friend and colleague to many of you as well as a close friend of Nina’s, quickly brought me up to speed on Nina’s expectations for all LITC professionals. I am also lucky enough to work alongside Nancy Rossner, who I consider one of the best tax controversy lawyers I have ever met. Nancy further exemplifies the high level of work expected for an LITC professional. I directly attribute Nancy’s high level of expertise and professionalism to Nina’s legacy. Was I challenged by all of this? Of course.

My challenge from Nina is simple – “do more”, “do it better”, and “make a difference.” Nina has never spoken or written those words that I am aware. However, Nina’s lifetime of work has led me to write them here as a description of how I approach my work at CTLP, because of her. When we report on our clinic activities, we can only hint at how people are “doing more”, “doing it better”, and “making a difference.” However, I see it all the time in the work of our clinic and other clinics around the country. Work that is done purely to make sure our clients are treated as fairly and justly as possible, that their stories are heard, and that the best result is achieved. In CTLP’s world, we are always looking for more cases, more complex cases, more ways to reach clients, better ways serve our clients, better ways to disseminate information, more avenues to educate the public, more, more, and more. More ways to make a difference. That is Nina’s challenge to me, and I have accepted.

In my humble opinion, Nina’s legacy will be more than the sum of all of the parts she created. It will be more than the LITC program. It will be more than her Congressional testimony, more than the thousands of words spoken and written, and more than the awards she has received. Her legacy will be the spark that ignites a fire in a practitioner to fight tooth and nail for a taxpayer who is not being treated fairly by the tax system. It will be the spark that urges a practitioner to write about an injustice they are experiencing, or the spark to advocate for a change in the law. I can say that I have received that spark, as I know many of my fellow LITC clinicians have. At the moment, I get to sit at Nina’s old desk, steward her old documents, and briefly walk in her footsteps. However, as low-income taxpayer clinic professionals, we will all continue to walk in these footsteps, carrying the spark, and fighting for the access to justice that all taxpayers deserve, and we thank you, Nina Olson, tireless champion of taxpayers’ rights, intellectual giant, and tax legend, for that spark and so much more.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Margaret Zehren Moores

We welcome Margaret Zehren Moores as our guest blogger today in the continuing series of reflections on the impact of Nina Olson. I have never met Margaret but she quickly answered my call for reflections. Margaret is currently the Deputy Director of Advocacy and Programs at Legal Services of Greater Miami but before she arrived in her current position, she served in legal services in a variety of programs around the country working on a variety of projects.

After obtaining a Master’s Degree in Education and a law degree, she started her career at Legal Services of Northeastern Wisconsin representing clients in special education and public benefits cases before moving to south-central Florida where she worked in the Belle Glade office of Florida Rural Legal Services. In that office she primarily represented recent Haitian immigrants in political asylum cases and she represented African American students in a federal class action lawsuit to enforce their rights to receive appropriate educational services. 

From there, Margaret relocated to Connecticut where she was the managing attorney of the Bridgeport and Danbury offices, and established a state wide legal unit to represent elderly and disabled clients. Since 1991 Margaret has worked at Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. holding a variety of positions including Coordinator of Children First, Senior Attorney of the Family, Juvenile and Education Unit, Director of Training and Professional Development, and Director of Grant Development and Funder Relations. Notice that none of these positions had anything to do with tax yet based on her broad experience representing individuals at Legal Services offices around the country Margaret recognized that her organization needed a tax clinic to fully represent their clients. From that recognition springs today’s reflection as it brought Nina and Margaret together. In this reflection we learn specifics about Nina’s role in the creation of a low income taxpayer clinic. This is just one of many clinics for which she played a major role in its founding. Keith

I am so pleased to share with you my reflections on Nina Olson as she is preparing to retire from her position as the National Taxpayer Advocate.

In the late 1990’s as more of our clients were employed, the nature of their legal problems also changed to reflect the problems and situations of low wage workers. This included federal income tax issues. In Miami, home to a large immigrant population, the issues were compounded because so many people lacked a basic understanding of the U.S. tax system, and often fell prey to nefarious tax preparers.

 Our attorneys recognized that our clients required high quality tax representation and education. Unfortunately, most of our attorneys’ knowledge of federal tax law was limited to a long ago law school class or Bar review course. It was at about this time that Congress funded the establishment of the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic. Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. applied for one of the first LITC grants, and we received funding to establish what we call “The Community Tax Clinic”.

Lacking sufficient knowledge of tax law, we reached out to Nina Olson at the Community Tax Law Project in Richmond, Virginia for guidance. As I remember, I made a cold call to Nina asking for guidance about how to establish the Clinic, priority legal issues, engaging clients, reference materials to purchase, and skills and qualifications to look for in hiring a Clinic Director. Nina could have politely directed me to basic tax treatises and IRS materials. Instead, she offered to fly right down to Miami to help us establish our Clinic. Nina met with me and our staff for a week long tutorial on tax law, model Clinic procedures, information about how to most effectively engage pro bono volunteers, and shared outreach and client education materials. Nina was warm, funny, and an engaged mentor. Her assistance was invaluable in helping us to quickly and successfully establish our very own LITC.

Twenty years have now passed. The Community Tax Clinic that serves Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys has represented and advised thousands of low income taxpayers. Thousands more have participated in an education workshop learning about their rights and responsibilities as a U.S. taxpayer. We have a very involved and engaged panel of volunteer attorneys who are deeply satisfied to use their unique knowledge and skills to help members of the community that they would not otherwise meet in their daily practice. Federal tax law is now a core priority and practice area at Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc., and is seen as an important tool in helping our clients achieve economic stability and self-sufficiency.

Nina was key to helping us understand that tax law is an important tool in our arsenal as we work for a more equitable society. We have a deep debt of gratitude to Nina for not only helping us to establish a successful tax practice, but also for her continued support of the LITC program which provides us with the resources to continue our advocacy for some of the poorest members of our community.

Seasons of Taxpayer Rights

We welcome Francine J. Lipman as our guest blogger today with her reflection on the tenure of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate.  Francine is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Francine is also a terrific (and creative) writer as you will see when you read this post and she is a tireless advocate for low income taxpayers from her position as a doctrinal professor.  Keith

(sing to Seasons of Love from Rent by Mr. Jonathan D. Larson)

Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes.
Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred moments in a career.
Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes.
How do you measure.
Measure NTA Olson’s career?

In tax refunds?
In blog posts?
In reports to Congress?
In reforms, in speeches, in analytics?
In nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes.
How do you measure eighteen years of a stellar career?

How about taxpayers?
How about LTAs?
How about LITCs?
Measure in rights …
Seasons of taxpayer rights ….
Seasons of taxpayer rights …

Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes.
Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred words in her plans.
Nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes.
How do you measure a career of a woman so grand?

In truths that we learned,
Or in times that she heard?
In bridges that she built,
Or the respect that she earned?

It’s time now to sing out,
though public service never ends.
Let’s celebrate eighteen years of advocacy we must commend.

Remember passion …
(Oh, you’ve got to you’ve got to remember taxpayer rights)
Remember tax maps …
(You know the rights are a gift from Congress)
Remember tireless service
and tax vans
(Share rights, give rights, protect rights, measure Nina’s career in rights)
Seasons of taxpayer rights …
Seasons of taxpayer rights …

Post Script

Dear National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson:

Thank you for the nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes in which you have inspired, mentored, driven, pushed, prodded, probed, analyzed, sacrificed, written, crunched, calculated, blogged, testified, criticized, applauded and lead generations of passion warriors for tax justice from sea to shining sea and across the globe to be the best we can be. In nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred minutes you have touched countless lives (including uncountable kids) and exponentially changed the world for the better. For this alone our gratitude is immeasurable and our respect for all that you have accomplished immense.

As Maya (Angelou), said, “When someone shows you who they are believe them, the first time.” Like Christine (A. Brunswick) and Janet (R. Spragens) you showed us who you were when you called Keith Fogg at IRS’ Chief Counsel and pitched your epiphany about a low-income taxpayer clinic in the 1990s. And the rest is “herstory,” your incredible tax story. We are in shock and awe at what you have accomplished for a greater good. And know that your public service will never end.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Margaret Mead

Because you have …

With gratitude, appreciation, and nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred thank yous,

Francine J. Lipman (one of nine million, four sixty thousand, eight hundred indebted #TeamNina foreverfans)

Reflections on the impact of Nina Olson by Erin Stearns

We welcome Erin Stearns, Associate Professor of the Practice of Law and Director of the Low-income Taxpayer Clinic at University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She has directed that clinic now for several years and become an important member of the low-income tax clinic community. Keith

The first time I heard Nina speak was at the 2012 Annual Grantee conference. I’d been working at the University of Denver LITC for just a couple months and spent most of that conference feeling I was treading water trying to grasp the issues other clinicians were discussing. In her speech, Nina conveyed tremendous passion for the issues, and the critical importance of the work we do for taxpayers and communities. While she was speaking, I realized I was in exactly the right place, right job, and right community, even though I had a big learning curve ahead of me.

Since then, Nina has come to occupy a place of heroism in my world. Many of my students – to whom I refer to Nina as my “Tax Hero” (really) – now know who Nina is and of the critical importance of the work she has done. She has regularly motivated me with her unapologetically high expectations for all Taxpayer Advocate Service staff and members of the LITC community. For years and through incredibly challenging times at the IRS, Nina has shown us the very best example of an advocate, leading with intelligence, wit, compassion, and perseverance. Yep, still my Tax Hero.

I join many, many people who were sad to learn Nina was retiring – she leaves very big shoes to fill as NTA. However, I’m delighted to learn she’ll continue to be involved in the tax world through her nonprofit and am certain she will continue to find platforms from which to advocate and improve tax law and administrative operations of the IRS. Nina, thank you for all you’ve given us – I am so excited to see what you do next!

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Scott A. Schumacher

We welcome back Scott A. Schumacher who has provided several guest blogs for us over the years. Scott is the Associate Dean and a Professor of Law at University of Washington Law School. He directed the tax clinic at the law school for many years. No other tax clinic director that I know of has become the Associate Dean of their law school. Through his writing, teaching and litigating, Scott has been a major voice for low income taxpayers for many years. Keith

There are public officials who occupy offices and there are those that transform them. Nina Olson not only transformed the office of the National Taxpayer Advocate, she transformed the tax system. I have been the director of the Federal Tax Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law since 2000. Back then, Nina was “one of us,” directing the Community Tax Law Project. It is astonishing and gratifying to look back and observe the changes to tax administration because of Nina’s leadership.

When I left private practice to join the low-income taxpayer community was also the time that the new taxpayer protections in the 1998 IRS Restructuring and Reform Act were beginning to take effect and wend their way through the courts. Prior to RRA ’98, taxpayers had few rights and protections, particularly in the collection arena, and engaging with the IRS was often like the weather, you had to just deal with it. However, Collection Due Process and other taxpayer rights in RRA ’98 helped to change the relationship between taxpayers and the taxing authorities.

This change was magnified by Nina’s effective deployment of low-income taxpayer clinics, Taxpayer Advocate Service personnel, and the bully pulpit. Tax clinics have represented thousands of low-income taxpayers and have helped shape law and policy through the efforts of clinic directors and staff. TAS employees have been a bulwark in support of taxpayers by not only assisting individuals in matters before the IRS, but also in the extensive research projects undertaken by TAS. The NTA’s Annual Reports to Congress are required reading for anyone interested in effective tax administration and protecting the rights of taxpayers. These reports have also been an effective counterweight to IRS and Treasury pronouncements.

Nina’s passion, eloquence, and tireless advocacy have ensured that each of these efforts were used to their maximum potential. Ultimately, Nina’s biggest contribution may be that she changed the conversation. The rights of low-income individuals and other taxpayers are no longer an afterthought, they are front-and-center in the discussion.

Reflections on Nina Olson from Ted Afield

We welcome Ted Afield to provide his thoughts on Nina’s impact.  Ted is an associate clinical professor of law and the Mark and Evelyn Trammell Professor and Director of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Georgia State Law School.  Ted and his clinic have partnered with the tax clinic at Harvard on several amicus briefs. The Georgia State tax clinic has been around for a while, has developed a terrific web site that serves many taxpayers and clinicians and covers a broad geographic area in Georgia.  Keith

Unlike some of the other folks who have posted wonderful reflections about Nina, I do not have as long of a personal history with her. I am still a relative newcomer in the low-income taxpayer clinic community.  While I am new, my clinic, however, is not.  I am fortunate to direct a clinic with a long and proud history behind it.  Accordingly, not long after I started at Georgia State, I found myself wanting to celebrate our clinic’s twenty-fifth anniversary.  I had gotten to know Keith, and I asked him if he could perhaps pave the way by introducing me to Nina so that I could see if I could convince her to take the time out of her schedule to fly down to Atlanta to be the speaker at our twenty-fifth anniversary event.  Keith said I should just e-mail her directly.  Now, I assume that Nina must get significantly more e-mails in a day than most of us do.  Like Rob Nassau, I had never met Nina before, and so I thought there was a very good chance that my e-mail might get lost in the shuffle (as it very likely would have had I been on the receiving end).  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Nina replied immediately and readily agreed to come down and speak at our event.  I still assumed that, given how busy she was, she would likely have to give her speech and then leave relatively quickly.  Nina made me 0 for 2 in my assumptions.  She insisted on getting to know our clinic students (and we have a lot of them), and she took the time to speak with all of them, to share her thoughts with them about their careers, and to really listen to their experiences in the clinic and what they perceived to be the most pressing issues facing low-income taxpayers.  While speakers can often time revert to chatting with faculty and distinguished guests in the audience, Nina was laser focused on wanting to communicate with our students so that she could make sure that she could influence them to always be thinking of how the tax system could be inadvertently hurting the most vulnerable among us.  And, unsurprisingly, she also gave an incredibly dynamic and impassioned speech indicating that she was intimately familiar with the history of our clinic and how it fit in the larger work of the low-income taxpayer community, the Taxpayer Advocate Service, and her work as the National Taxpayer Advocate.  She was able to command the attention of an audience that consisted of students, academics, IRS attorneys, and private practitioners, which is not easy to do.

I mention this story because, while Nina’s energy, creativity, and tireless advocacy have been rightly praised by so many, what I think is a bit underappreciated about Nina, especially outside the academic community, is how critical she has been towards creating an environment in which academic tax clinics could thrive.  While the grant funding that she helped secure is of course incredibly important to academic institutions that always have one (sometimes all) eyes on the budget when considering whether to start a clinic, what is even more important is how Nina approached her job as one that would engage both the academic and practitioner communities simultaneously and would look for ways to apply academic theory and research to practical problems impacting the most vulnerable in our society.  She moves seamlessly between the IRS, academic, and practitioner communities, and I think we might all take that a bit for granted given how rare that is.  Her ability to do this has been critical, however, for demonstrating that tax issues are social justice issues and that applied tax research is critical towards improving the lives of vulnerable populations.

Although Nina came out of the practitioner rather than the academic community, she from her earliest years as National Taxpayer Advocate recognized the importance of developing academic partnerships with people like Keith, Les, and other early critical tax theorists who focused on the intersection of poverty and tax law and who were among the early academics who built out the theoretical support for practical policy solutions for which Nina could advocate.  Indeed, she infused her annual reports with rigorous empirical research and qualitative theoretical and applied analysis to make sure that her policy proposals could never be effectively attacked for being based solely on anecdotal evidence or on partisan political consideration.  For those who criticize the academy for sometimes being too far removed from issues that touch people’s lives directly or that directly impact the practitioner community, the practical research and policy advocacy that came out of this work and that improved the lives of countless taxpayers serves as a stark rebuke.

Nina’s efforts created an environment in which academic tax clinics can present themselves as being exemplars of what an academic clinic should be.  As a result, academic tax clinics now occupy a space in which they can serve as an effective bridge between academic research and issues that directly impact individual taxpayers.  As a result, the future of academic clinics is bright.  Looking around at many of the country’s academic clinics, what you will find is that a new generation of tax academics is arriving to take them over, eager to build on this pioneering work by training future attorneys with a strong sense of why tax is a social justice issue, by helping to identify issues that could be ripe for legislative change, and by conducting academic research to further flesh out the theoretical basis for enhancing tax justice and taxpayer rights.  Academic clinics predate Nina’s work as National Taxpayer Advocate, but her efforts have ensured their future for decades to come.  As someone who is one of the recent arrivals in the academic LITC community, I am incredibly grateful, and I also feel a tremendous sense of responsibility.  Nina showed what could be done by a gifted researcher and advocate who wanted to make the tax system more just and fair whenever she could.  It’s an impossible standard to live up to, but I’m looking forward to all of our efforts to do so in the years ahead.

Reflections on the impact of Nina Olson by William Schmidt

William is the director of the tax clinic at Kansas Legal Services. His bio is below because he is one of the designated order authors. The scholarship that William references is one of the many ways that the ABA Tax Section assists Low Income Tax Clinics and the clinicians who work there. Keith

I was a student intern at an LITC during law school but then there were several years in private practice where I juggled tax research with work in other areas of law during the rest of the year. When I started working full-time for the Kansas Legal Services LITC in 2016, I made a point of diving in to the LITC world. I received a scholarship to the American Bar Association Tax Section Fall Meeting in Boston. As part of the scholarship, I had to attend the Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee meeting on Saturday morning. On the slate was an address by the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, at 8:30 so the scholarship recipients were told not to show up late.

When the address started, I was taken in by Nina’s manner — bold, outspoken and highly intelligent. She was one to speak her mind and she launched into a recount of that year’s taxpayer forums she held across the country. During that conference’s session, Nina updated us on her recent interactions and what the status was on various efforts to make improvements for taxpayers, especially low income taxpayers.

I made a point of introducing myself to Nina at that conference and she was polite, welcoming me in to the LITC world. I also made a point of introducing myself to Keith Fogg at that conference, offering to get involved in his writing projects. I wonder what became of that little suggestion.

I learned Nina was a frequent participant at ABA Tax Section conferences and LITC conferences. She sometimes chided those of us in the LITC, but that is because she has high standards and holds everyone working with taxpayers to those standards.

By now, I have come in contact with the reports to Congress, the blogs, the videos, and other various communications from Nina and the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Nina has been a zealous advocate for taxpayers, winning battles in support of taxpayer rights.

I am unable to recount all of Nina’s accomplishments since I do not share that history. I can say, though, that without her involvement there would not be an LITC program that could have taught me about tax controversies and eventually provided me this career path and the various opportunities I now have.

She has inspired me to work harder for low income taxpayers. I became part of an initiative this year that is working to bring improvements to collection due process. That initiative could impact taxpayers, the IRS, and the U.S. Tax Court to help everyone involved. I think Nina has been a direct example of how to fight for taxpayer improvements because they benefit us all.

I do not want anyone to think that tributes like this mean it is the end of the road. Nina has promised that she will continue to advocate for taxpayers. She also agreed to be interviewed on my podcast in the future. I expect she will keep those promises and I know she will say something worth hearing.

Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Michelle Drumbl

Continuing our series described in a post on July 8, we are offering reflections on Nina’s impact during the month of July before she retires. Today’s post comes from Michelle Drumbl. Michelle is a Clinical Professor of Law at Washington & Lee and the Director of the Tax Clinic. She writes often on issues involving innocent spouse, EITC and other topics that impact low income taxpayers. She keys in on an important feature that Nina has brought to the NTA position. Keith

Tireless energy: when I think of Nina Olson, these are always the first two words that come to mind. In my twelve years as a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic director and clinical tax professor, Nina Olson has served as a great inspiration for my client advocacy as well as my academic scholarship. 

Each December when the LITC directors gather for the annual grant program conference, Nina gives a keynote address. The conference falls at a time of year when I am busy and distracted. It coincides with the end of the academic semester, when I am thinking of grading and preparing for the new semester. Nevertheless, when it is time for Nina’s keynote, I am energized. Listening to her is like drinking a double shot of espresso: I find myself madly jotting down ideas for cases and educational outreach, or making notes of research studies she references. I have been continually inspired each year as she has identified new issues and challenged the clinics in new ways. I know that I am not alone – Nina has been at the forefront of expanding the LITC movement. Under her watch, the grant program has grown into a robust national network of clinics, resulting in a meaningful embodiment of a taxpayer’s right to retain representation. 

I am heartened to learn that, even as she retires from her position as National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina has a vision for continuing her pursuit of taxpayer rights in a different capacity. Taxpayers across the United States are better off for it. Best wishes, Nina, as you continue your journey on behalf of taxpayers. Thank you for your service as Taxpayer Advocate, and I look forward to continuing to cross paths with you in this work.