Janet R. Spragens Federal Tax Clinic Stands By to Help Low-Income Clients

As the calendar clicks toward April 15 and millions of Americans scramble to prepare their annual tax returns, a group of American University Washington College of Law students stand ready to help.

Student attorneys in the Janet R. Spragens Federal Tax Clinic typically assist low-income individuals in their disputes with the Internal Revenue Service. Students are to make a pro bono commitment of at least 20 hours to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program as part of the clinic.

The bulk of their work, however, is devoted to helping low-income clients with past-due issues — taxpayers in dispute with the IRS over last year’s liability, said Professor Nancy Abramowitz, director of the tax clinic.

Clients in the tax clinic come to the clinic via several avenues. Pro se litigants with less than $50,000 at issue in tax court receive a notice from the court about the clinic. There are also brochures, in English and Spanish, at the courtroom, and the IRS website provides a list of low-income clinics for those who qualify.

Student attorneys say their experience in the clinic has given a deeper meaning to the classes they took in their academic career.

“I enjoyed all of my tax classes at American University Washington College of Law and really wanted to see what the practice of tax law was all about,” said third-year student Brian Aragon.

During his fall semester as a student attorney, Aragon represented individuals in U.S. tax court and in appeals conferences with IRS attorneys. Aragon said the vast majority of his time was spent communicating with IRS agents as part of his representation of low-income clients who were being audited or who were in collections proceedings with the IRS.

“I liked bringing closure to a person's legal problem,” he said. “The IRS can appear very aggressive, but knowing how to speak the language, I was able to help my clients resolve their issues.”

Chantel Hernandez also spent her fall semester as a student attorney in the tax clinic, after deciding it was the closest match to her career aims of corporate or business law. Hernandez conducted intake interviews with individuals who contacted the clinic, and then consulted with one of the clinic’s supervising attorneys to determine if the clinic could take on the client.

“From there, I was responsible for building the case and contacting IRS attorneys, if it was a tax controversy issue, to attempt to reach a settlement,” she said. Hernandez also helped her clients who had collections issues by setting up payment plans with the IRS or requesting a special status where the client’s liability is deferred.

Though Hernandez came to American University Washington College of Law intending to seek out a career in antitrust law, her experience in a Federal Corporate Income Tax class inspired her to apply for the clinic.

“After I finished my semester in the tax clinic, I began working at the Department of Justice Tax Division Appellate Section,” Hernandez said. “I am really enjoying my time at Justice and can see myself becoming a tax attorney.”

Abramowitz said she frequently hears from past participants who laud the clinic’s role in their academic career.

“I got a LinkedIn invitation last night from someone who says it was the best thing she did in law school,” Abramowitz said.

“The most rewarding part of clinic was helping my clients,” concurred Hernandez. “Many of my clients felt overwhelmed dealing with the IRS on their own and they were so grateful to have someone advocate on their behalf. I put in a lot of effort to help my clients as much as possible and many of them could see that, and to have them acknowledge that was very rewarding."