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.