The latest episode of Skadden’s “GILTI Conscience” podcast spotlights how, despite perceptions to the contrary, tax attorneys have a wealth of opportunities to do pro bono work focused on their area of law. Hosts Nate Carden, David Farhat and Stefane Victor are joined by associate Jaclyn Roeing, who explains how she was introduced to pro bono tax work and the positive impacts it can have on attorneys’ careers as well as their communities. Jaclyn also provides tips on how others can become involved.
For many low-income individuals, filing taxes may be a daunting task, and many may even choose to avoid interacting with the IRS altogether due to negative experiences. However, not filing taxes may mean missing out on crucial refunds and benefits.
From low-income taxpayer clinics in communities to organizations and initiatives such as VITA, GetYourRefund and Code For America, there are a multitude of pro bono opportunities for tax attorneys to get involved in to ensure taxpayers receive the benefits they deserve.
According to Jaclyn Roeing, an attorney at Skadden who volunteers with Community Tax Aid in Washington, D.C., “One of the key benefits of pro bono work is the opportunity to give back to your community and to use the skills you develop as a lawyer for clients that would otherwise not have representation at all, and that you might never get to engage with.”
Don’t miss this Spotlight Series episode of GILTI Conscience as we sit down with Jaclyn to discuss how engaging in pro bono work as a tax attorney benefits both communities and attorneys, and how you can get involved.
- Becoming a tax attorney doesn’t mean missing opportunities for community involvement. Some law students may hesitate to pursue a career as a tax attorney because of the common notion that it would mean they can’t use their law degrees to help others. However, there are many pro bono opportunities that require the skillset of a tax attorney, allowing them to help low-income families earn benefits they may have never known they qualified for.
- Taxpayer clinics are a great way to kickstart a career. Law students should consider volunteering at a low-income taxpayer clinic or other relevant organization, such as VITA or GetYourRefund. Not only are these groups beneficial to the community, but they also provide law students a unique opportunity to dive headfirst into the world of tax law and gain valuable experience.
- The tax system is not built to benefit the underprivileged. According to research, the IRS has enough information to automatically calculate taxes owed by 40% of Americans. However, while there is room for the IRS to operate more efficiently and make the filing process easier, taxpayers are not offered these services, and low-income people often avoid the process rather than attempt to navigate the tax system themselves. It is essential for lawyers to not only volunteer their time at low-income taxpayer clinics, but to voice their concerns about these issues in policy discussions.
This is GILTI Conscience. Casual discussion on transfer pricing, tax tradies, and related topics. A podcast from Skadden, that invites thought leaders and industry experts to discuss pressing transfer pricing issues, international tax reform efforts and tax administration trends. We also dig into the innovative approaches companies are using to navigate the international tax environment and address the obligation everyone loves to hate. Now, your hosts, Skadden partners David Farhat and Nate Carden.
Nate Carden (00:36):
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of GILTI Conscience. As always, Nate Carden, here with David Farhat, Stefane Victor. Eman Cuyler is still out on leave, but will be back with us soon. (00:47):
Today, we’re going to continue our Spotlight Series were we explore non-technical, non-traditional topics in tax, and we’re thrilled to be joined by Jaclyn Roeing, who is going to talk to us about her experiences doing pro-bono tax, and what that has meant for her career, and what that also has meant for our community.
Jaclyn Roeing (01:07):
Thanks, Nate. It’s great to be back.
Nate Carden (01:08):
So, tell us a little bit about your pro-bono work, and how you got into it, how you came to be doing as much as you’re doing now.
Jaclyn Roeing (01:18):
Yeah. I think pro-bono is a really important area that young attorneys can get involved in for a variety of reasons. I initially got involved in activities that I think have led to my pro-bono practice when I was in law school, through the low-income taxpayer clinic. That I had the opportunity to work at.
I, from a substantive perspective, was interested in tax and wanted to see more about what it was like to have a career in tax, and LATC was a great chance to do that. Over time, then, getting out into practicing law, there are a lot of opportunities that come up for pro-bono in different areas. One of the great things about being a tax attorney in Skadden’s DC office and having a really robust tax group is that we get a lot of pro-bono tax opportunities that come in. And so, to be honest, at some point, it’s a wealth of opportunity.
There’s a lot of controversy and litigation, which is, I think, a very traditional area that people think of as pro-bono work. But, we also have a number of clients that come in and need tax advice in the context of their non-profit registration, or other business structuring activities.
David Farhat (02:44):
So, quick question, Jaclyn, kind of talking about the pro-bono work. I know one thing I dealt with in my law school journey, and going into tax, a lot of folks feel like, “Okay, you’re going to be a tax attorney, you’re selling out. You’re working for the government, or you’re working for the man, or you’re making money, and you’re not giving back.” I think that’s a common view around tax, and I think that’s why there’s some hesitation for some folks to go into tax who want to do good for the world.
So, can you kind of describe some of the projects you’ve worked on and how these things have kind of been impactful to community, how they’ve allowed folks to give back and kind of dealt with some policy issues that folks typically don’t associate with practice in tax?
Jaclyn Roeing (03:25):
I agree 100%, David, that one of the key areas or key benefits of pro-bono work is the opportunity to give back to your community and to use the skills you developed as a lawyer for clients that would otherwise not have representation at all, and that you might never get to engage with. And there are plenty of those opportunities in tax.
One thing that I have done for a number of years, and that’s been really rewarding for my practice, and also for engaging with my DC community is volunteering with a group called Community Tax Aid, which is part of the volunteer... The VITA Program. The Volunteer Income Tax Payer’s Assistance Program, I believe.
But, what this program does rather than just giving legal advice, there’s a small number of local attorneys they have on staff to provide tax legal advice, if they need people to come in and help prepare tax returns. So, this was an organization I got involved with early in my career.
And, just being able to work with tax returns, getting to work with tax payers, helping a single mom fill out their earning income tax credit, and get a little bit more of a refund back to support her kids is fantastic. Because, I think tax is complicated even for individuals who, in comparison to some of the corporate clients we see in a big law setting like Skadden, their tax returns are pretty simple. But, to them it’s not.
David Farhat (04:56):
And, let’s unpack that a little bit. I know you touched on it briefly when you were here last time with Fred, but just talk about why it’s important for low-income folks to have access to tax preparation services and to be able to file an income tax return. Because some folks may think, “Well, if you’re low-income, or if you don’t have any income at all, why am I worrying about filing a tax return?”
Jaclyn Roeing (05:18):
Yeah. One of the things that people don’t necessarily realize when they think of the IRS and they think of taxes is that the tax system has become one of the biggest benefits administration systems we have in the United States. I don’t have the dollar amounts in front of me, but I know there are billions of dollars paid out each year in refundable tax credits for the earned income taxpayer credit, and then in recent years, the economic impact payments have been paid out as a tax credit, the trial tax credit with an advanced portion in recent years from the pandemic, also a refundable credit.
So, taxpayers who don’t file a tax return will never know if they qualify for these credits or not. It’s money that they’re leaving on the table to which they’re legally entitled. So, one of the benefits of organizations like Community Tax Aid that’s getting out and preparing returns, other organizations that I’ve worked with like Code for America, which created the Get Your Refund Portal online, and GetCTC portal to help specifically for trial tax credit, these are incredibly important to bring accessible tax preparation services to low-income taxpayers who might otherwise just forgo a return because it’s too difficult to figure out how to do it.
Stefane Victor (06:36):
So, similar to something that David mentioned earlier, but, one of the responses that I hear whenever I tell someone that I’m a tax attorney is “How boring.” And I think people kind of forget that taxes, specially federal income tax, can tell a story. And, when you just think about tax in general, or even corporate tax, you think you kind of are removed. There’s like a level of separation from real life.
Can you talk about how your work kind of brings you closer to some of those stories, and maybe how that’s drawn you to doing the pro-bono work that you do?
Jaclyn Roeing (07:14):
I think that that’s a really smart perception, Stefane, that on the one hand, you might think of tax as being abstract and numbers, but at the end of the day, whether you’re representing a company with billions of dollars of income on the line, or an individual, there’s a person behind the tax return. And they are doing things that are resulting in the positions they’re going to be taking on their returns. I sort of see the pro-bono work that you can do in tax is really benefiting attorneys from two levels.
Number one, as you said, you learn so many client-management skills through your ability to engage directly with taxpayers, and to talk with them. And, honestly, I think one of the things that surprised me the most about getting into tax pro-bono work from an early position in my career was how much of that work was really just managing the client’s expectations, and explaining the tax system, and why does it work this way. And then, often having to deal with kind of the tough conversation of, “Yeah, I know you wanted a bigger return this year, or part of bigger refund, but the way the laws work out... I know it was bigger last year, but this is where we are this year.”
David Farhat (08:27):
And those skills are relevant across clients, right?
Jaclyn Roeing (08:29):
Exactly. Yeah. One of the challenges of being an associate in a big law setting is that you tend to be a little bit more removed from the action in your first few years of practice. That’s just how it goes. But, doing this kind of pro-bono work, that allows you to directly engage with clients. And, oftentimes I think pro-bono, a great thing too is, you paired up with a more senior attorney who has some experience, and you get to see how they interact with a client directly. It’s all great stuff, and all skills that you just then continue to use in your career.
David Farhat (08:58):
It’s awesome. We’ve talked about some of the benefits of the work you do, both for the attorney doing the work and stuff you can do for the community. But, can we start from the beginning and just kind of walk through some of the stuff you do for VITA, and some of the stuff you do for other programs? Just so folks can get a flavor of it?
Jaclyn Roeing (09:14):
Sure. Maybe a place to start, because I know we’re also in addition trying to angle the podcast for some students and people may be interested in getting into tax would be to start with the low-income taxpayer clinic a little bit.
So, those are clinics, normally connected with law schools, that get students an opportunity to represent taxpayers in what we would consider more of the controversy setting. So, you’re not filing a complaint for them, but you’re normally representing them before the service, and trying to get some sort of resolution to their tax issues. And, I think that that is a really interesting point to start your career, because if you think of the law student, you’re normally reading cases in your fed income class, or you’re trying to expand your knowledge in some of the advance classes. It’s all very technical. You’re reading cases, not really working in application.
And then, all of a sudden, if you get the chance to work on a low-income taxpayer clinic, you’re now thrown into the deep end with the IRS, with its agents, with its forms, what’s the power of attorney, how do I fax that in? It’s the kind of practical skills that I think help give you a sense of what this practice really looks like. But, also, to get a flavor of, how can I start advocating for clients who, oftentimes, those low-income clients, they don’t have a lot of documentation that would help support their situation. One of the big ways you can try and get a good resolution for those clients as an offer in compromise.
If they have outstanding tax liability for prior years and they’ve fallen on hard times because of medical issues or family issues that just wipe out their earnings or their inability... Make them unable to be employed in the future, that tax debt that’s hanging over them from the prior years could become really problematic and majorly impact their ability to live their lives.
Nate Carden (11:05):
Have these experiences also given you thoughts as to, or changed your thinking on what’s good tax policy, what’s not? What’s too complicated, what’s not?
Jaclyn Roeing (11:16):
What I will say is I want to recognize it’s complicated to make changes. Because there are so many people involved in the efficient administration of the tax system, right? Congress passes laws, there are clearly a lot of stakeholders, lobbyists, people involved in that process. You’ve treasure, which sets certain policies. Then, the IRS that’s trying to administer.
I think that there’s a lot of room, though, for things to be more efficient, and for it to be easier for taxpayers. There are things like how much information the service has on taxpayers. I think something like 40% of individual tax returns, per a paper that was released earlier this year, 40% could be completely filled out by the service just on the information the service has, alone.
David Farhat (12:06):
Jaclyn Roeing (12:07):
I mean, I don’t know that we could ever go to a fully-automated system, because there are things like how many children lived in your house for the tax year? You get certain benefits based on the number of children. And that might be hard for the government to track. We may not want to government to track that. But, there’s a lot of information they already have that they could be using to help taxpayers make the process easier. And, the general policy has been that the service won’t do that.
Now, the final point I’ll make here is that I think that’s interesting because, if a taxpayer fails to file a tax return, the service has the ability to file what they call a substitute for return and say, “Oh, hey. You messed up and didn’t file, and we figured it out for you. Now, pay us the tax and interest and penalties.” So, there’s already a system in place for the service to be using the information it has. But, I think not enough impetus to use it to benefit taxpayers.
Nate Carden (13:02):
Say a little more, if you can, about why. Because, your point about the service being able to do this, but they’re choosing not to, is interesting. So, what if you had a middle-of-the-road position where they sent you a return... Here’s what we think. Go take that to VITA. And then, as a VITA volunteer you could look at it and say, “No, this is wrong. You have four kids, not three.” What’s the barrier that’s stopping that?
Jaclyn Roeing (13:32):
You know, it’s a great question. Not sure that I have a fully enumerated list of things, but I think where it would come down to is probably historical practice. And, in a paper age, as well, it would’ve been a huge burden on the service and on the government to have process those, prepare 10-40s and mailing them out. But, I think that now that we live in more of a technological age with electronic filings. There’s a lot of opportunity for the federal government to use that technology to more effectively connect with taxpayers.
David Farhat (14:06):
And I want to unpack Nate’s question a little bit. I think one thing... Shout out to professor Dorothy Brown, her book The Whiteness of Wealth, kind of really go through some of this issues with the tax system, and how it can disproportionately impact, or negatively impact people of color and low-income folks. One of the things I want to unpack with Nate’s question, it appears that there’s a bias in tax towards big money and big corporations. So, if you read the tax press, the stories revolve around that. If you go into the tax practice, whether you’re an accountant, or a lawyer, or an economist, the steer is towards that kind of work.
So, I’m not sure there are a lot of tax practitioners who have a feel for these issues that you’re talking about.
Stefane Victor (14:53):
I’m going to ask a question, and not to put Jaclyn on the spot, so as a question to all three of you, why do you think people feel so disengaged from tax? Part of it might be that, if the idea or the assumption is, “I’m going to pay the government money”, that is just so unexciting that they’re just like, “I’ll put it off until forever.” But, it’s something that really... Not baffles me, but it puzzles me. What can... Maybe it’s a complexity. Like, the tax code or... David, do you have an answer?
David Farhat (15:26):
I think one of the reasons in the US where there’s this just avoidance of the topic, and ignoring the topic is something that Jaclyn hit on. She said, “Look. It appears we have the ability to kind of prepare on our own, without the taxpayers involvement, about 40% of returns. But we don’t do it. However, if we want to go after a taxpayer, we will then do it.” So, it’s that interaction with the IRS that is almost always negative.
So, if you don’t have an interaction, you lose a benefit that you never know about. But, when you have the forced interaction, and when the IRS forces you to interact, it’s negative. So, the thought is, “This is hard, it’s really complex, and when I do it, I get stung. So, I just kind of turn my back on it, and it just becomes one of these things that’s just a negative.”
So, I think that, kind of going to Nate’s question, and some of the things that Jaclyn said, I’d really like to see an area where the IRS kind of goes after you to make sure you get some of these returns. Now, it sounds crazy that the government would chase people to give them money, but I think it’s really important to do some of that and change the perception of the tax authority and the tax code. Because, it’s really important for society.
And, I think, Jaclyn, you mentioned that it’s one of the... I forget how you phrased it, but it’s one of... The IRS and the tax code provides some of the biggest benefits for folks in giving money to low-income folks. But, it’s the idea now, that there is this barrier to accessing it. And I think what it is, if you have the economic means, and you can pay attorneys, and pay accountants to kind of go digging around for you to find all of the benefits, or to find all of the things you can take advantage of, people without economic means don’t have that.
And I think, one way to do it is we, as attorneys, can do more pro-bono work to get that information out to folks. But, I think we also have to have a responsibility to make that policy comment so that, however we make policy comments we say, “Listen, this should be easier, because it’s better for tax administration, and it’s better for people’s relationship with the tax authority and taxes in general.”
Jaclyn Roeing (17:37):
And, just to piggyback off that, David, I think you’re exactly right. That part of this issue is an education issue. There are so many taxpayers who just don’t understand, in the way that they should, the benefits that can be had from the tax code. So, half the battle is really taking people in our position of privilege and knowledge and using our skills and resources to help taxpayers get more informed.
It’s definitely, I think, one of the most exciting parts of the work that Fred Goldberg and I have been doing with Code for America, which, to another point you’ve made, a lot of the outreach, a lot of the work to advance and improve the tax experience of low-income taxpayers is not being done by people with money, it’s being done by non-profits and pro-bono organizations around the country. Code for America is one of those that’s trying to make it easier to allow taxpayers to engage with this process.
David Farhat (18:35):
And, tell us more about that work, please. What exactly does Code for America do, and what do you and Fred do with them?
Jaclyn Roeing (18:41):
Yeah, very happy to. So, Code for America is a non-profit organization that is looking to harness technology and use it to help find solutions to issues that come up with government and expanding government benefits for American citizens. They don’t just work in the tax context, they have done some other projects as well, but as you’ve said, Fred Goldberg and I have been working with them on some of their tax initiatives which have revolved around creating online platforms that taxpayers can use to file their tax returns and get benefits.
The IRS, though, I think, has very brilliantly come out with a couple of revenue procedures whereby they’ll allow taxpayers who don’t need to file a tax return because they don’t tick the two, three, four, standard reasons why they’ll allow those taxpayers to file after the normal tax season, what they’ve called a simplified return, just to get access to some of the refundable tax credits that we talked about earlier.
David Farhat (19:47):
Jaclyn Roeing (19:48):
Yeah. So, Code for America has also developed a platform for those taxpayers called GetCTC, which stands for the Trial Tax Credit, and Fred and I have worked with Code for America on that platform to make sure that the platform is in compliance with the provisions of the revenue procedure, talked through with some of them the language that they’re using on the platform, just do what we can to help it get structured and get running so that it can start helping taxpayers.
David Farhat (20:20):
So, if folks want to get involved with something like that or do some of that work, I know you mentioned the low-income tax clinic in law school. How would they do so?
Jaclyn Roeing (20:29):
There’s so many great entry points. Yeah, we talked about the law-income taxpayer clinic, VITA is a program with partner organizations across the country, so if you want to join up with one of those, I think that’s a great opportunity. Get Your Refund is constantly looking for volunteers, even in the postseason, if you will, after April 15th.
Nate Carden (20:52):
What do I need to know getting into this? I’m a junior associate listening to this, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, this sounds great, Jaclyn, but you know what? I know how to read credit agreements and update disclosures for lenders. I don’t know how to be responsible for somebody actually getting the money that they need to raise their family. How do I make sure that I don’t get in over my head?”
Jaclyn Roeing (21:19):
I hear that. And a good answer is that these organizations that provide tax preparation services also don’t want you to be in over your head. So, there is, as part of the VITA requirements for an organization to be certified by the IRS, there are training programs, pretty extensive, that you have to go through, there’s a number of hours, there’s a test you have to take that shows you’re understanding the concepts and how they apply when you’re preparing a return.
And then, during the actual volunteering process itself, there is always a person who is reviewing the work of the original tax preparer. So, those two levels of people looking at the information, and making sure it’s in the right place on the tax return.
David Farhat (22:10):
And, if I’m working for an accounting firm, or a law firm, how do I then get involved into some of these things? Do I reach out to my pro-bono folks? Can I pound the table a little bit? That they pick up some of this pro-bono tax work?
Jaclyn Roeing (22:24):
Yeah, I think there are a couple places you could get into it. First it’s going to be... You could, just on your own, seek out these VITA programs and start working with them, if your firm doesn’t have a relationship already. Second, as you’ve said, you can reach out to your pro-bono staff at your law firm and say, “Hey, I’m interested in doing this. Let’s get a relationship set up.” The third opportunity, I think would be, as well, if you want to get involved with tax work slightly more outside of the tax return preparation space, to talk with your firm about establishing a relationship with some of the local low-income taxpayer clinics at law schools.
Because, one of the issues that I know came out when I was at my LATC is that we would get clients who came in and clearly needed help, but it was beyond the capabilities of what we, as students, could handle. People with more complicated situations, people who might need to file a petition in tax court. So, having a relationship with a local LATC can al|low firms to be a resource to take on some of those cases when they come up.
Nate Carden (23:32):
We spent a lot of here talking about federal tax and, particularly, 10-40s. Does this also extend to payroll taxes, property taxes, state taxes? I live in Maryland, I have one job in DC, I have a second 10-99 gig work in Virginia, I don’t know what to do. The world’s really complicated. What does the pro-bono space look like outside of form 10-40?
Jaclyn Roeing (24:02):
Yeah, 10-40s is an easy shortcut. I would say that a lot of the VITA organizations are generally in a position to also help taxpayers file their state returns. So, that’s good news.
And, the kinds of income and life experiences that they can handle on the 10-40 and the state returns is pretty broad. So, if you’re working in the gig economy, if you’re an Uber or Lyft driver, if you’ve got other forms of 10-99, forms of income coming in, a lot of times those can be handled. There are going to be some exceptions, which goes back again to those training requirements. There’s only so much training, as volunteers, that you get. And sometimes, circumstances are more unique enough that it’s worth the taxpayers time to seek out professional advice.
But, a lot of those different circumstances can be handled.
David Farhat (24:52):
Awesome. As we’re coming close to time, I think one... May not be a final question, but one thing I want to ask you is, can you kind of give us, or reflect, on some of your best experiences doing pro-bono work? And maybe not just your best experience, but the experiences that have had the most impact on you.
Jaclyn Roeing (25:12):
What I really reflect on are the relationships I’ve gotten to form with the other attorneys on whom I’ve worked on these pro-bono projects. We’ve already talked a lot about the interaction between you as a volunteer attorney with your client. I haven’t really talked about how, when you’re working on a team with other attorneys, it is such an incredible way to build those relationships, build your network with other people.
I’m thinking how, for instance, the DC office or our tax group here at Skadden is probably 45 or 50 attorneys. But, as an attorney that specializes in controversy and litigation work, there’s easily half the practice that I don’t work with regularly. I’ve had, though, clients who in the pro-bono space, who’d let me work with some of those attorneys on the more transactional side of our practice, and that’s been a really rewarding experience.
David Farhat (26:06):
Awesome. You build great relationships, you learn practical skills, you help folks, you get an insight into policy. Just a myriad of wonderful reasons to get involved into tax and pro-bono. And, as Nate mentioned at the start, this is a spotlight, so we’ll be talking about tax and pro-bono more. So that we can encourage our tax brethren and sistren to give back more, and not just to the big money work, or the big corporation work.
Jaclyn Roeing (26:35):
It is so rewarding.
David Farhat (26:37):
That’s true. We don’t want to say that too loud. We may cut down in the tax pro-bono work.
Nate Carden (26:46):
You get to, you don’t have to. But, Jaclyn, thanks so much for being one of those who chose to. We really appreciate it.
David Farhat (26:52):
And thank you very much, this was an absolutely pleasure.
Jaclyn Roeing (26:55):
Thank you so much for having me. I’ve had a great time.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of GILTI Conscience. If you like what you’re hearing, be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss any future conversations. Skadden’s tax team is recognized globally for providing clients with creative and innovative solutions to their most pressing transactional, planning and controversy challenges.
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