Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Alice Abreu

We welcome Professor Alice Abreu. Alice teaches tax at Temple Law School. She is a great teacher and winner of many awards at Temple. She has long wanted to engage her students in practical learning about tax which led her to create what I believe was the first tax class at a law school designed to train the students to serve as volunteers for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Her students fan out across the Philadelphia region to assist low income filers. In class they not only learn practical lessons about how to fill out returns but how to deal with clients and they see the direct impact of tax policy. Keith

Nina Olson is a force of nature. Not only has she changed tax administration in this country but she has created an international movement for taxpayer rights. Her influence on the tax systems of both the United States and other jurisdictions is immeasurable. Her Annual Reports to Congress contain treasure troves of original research that only someone in her position could have conducted, and her Legislative Recommendations have provided Congress with a blueprint for more effective tax administration. I don’t know what Congress expected when it created the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate and the position of the National Taxpayer Advocate, but I’m pretty sure that few who were involved with the passage of the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 imagined the vision, tenacity, dedication, and creativity with which Nina has performed her job for the past 18 years or could have foreseen what Nina has made of the Taxpayer Advocate Service and the position of National Taxpayer Advocate. She leaves behind a strong organization with a cadre of skilled and dedicated employees who will miss their leader mightily, but who have learned from her and are inspired and prepared to carry on her legacy. Kudos to all of the people who had the wisdom to make her appointment happen near the turn of the century. Taxpayers and the tax system are in your debt.

But readers of this blog know everything I’ve just said and have said much of it themselves in this series of tributes. I therefore want to offer an additional frame for Nina’s accomplishments. That frame is legal education. Through her advocacy on behalf of LITCs both before and after she became the NTA Nina transformed tax education in law schools. The increase in the number of LITCs that followed the availability of federal matching dollars not only had a deep impact on the taxpayers who were served by the new LITCs, as many have noted, but also affected the students who have worked in the academic clinics and for whom there are now more potential jobs working in the public interest. It also expanded the coverage of tax curricula; the many definitions of dependent, the EITC, offers in compromise, and the intricacies of tax procedure and administration—subjects rarely covered in any depth in the typical law school introductory tax course—are now well-known to the many students who have to master them in order to represent their clients in LITCs.

Moreover, the growth in academic LITCs likely increased the proportion of students who study tax, because an LITC can attract to the study of tax students who want to help low income individuals but who might have otherwise avoided tax. Even those of us who are not clinicians can point to students whose introduction to the tax system was through their work in an LITC and who almost certainly would not have become tax lawyers otherwise. In helping to expand dramatically the number of LITCs, Nina thereby changed the professional trajectory of many law students’ lives, and for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, this magnet effect might even help to increase the diversity of the tax bar.

More specifically and personally, Nina affected tax education at Temple and my own professional life in lasting ways. Her support was crucial to my ability to develop a course that has become a popular and important addition to our tax curriculum. Low Income Taxpayer Policy & Practice allows us to leverage VITA to provide students with an experience which differs from the LITC experience but which is similarly valuable. The course combines tax policy with public service and introduces students to the challenges of tax administration through close study of the current Annual Report to Congress. Developing and then teaching that course has been professionally transformative for me. Nina was a guest lecturer in its inaugural year and an inspiration for the nearly 200 students who came to hear her discuss her life’s work later that day. She thus launched what is now an eight-year-long tradition of bringing a current or former high ranking government official to deliver Temple’s Fogel Lecture. Last year, Nina was the keynote speaker at our annual Law Review Symposium, which focused on the U.S. Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a concept and a statutory provision which almost certainly would not exist without her. Our tax curriculum and our students’ education are stronger for her inspiration and participation.

So thank you Nina, for what you’ve done for taxpayers, for tax administration, for law students, and for those of us who have had the great privilege of knowing you and working with you. Here’s looking forward to what the next chapter of your life holds.