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.