Connecting with Clients in the Tax Clinic Ben Halligan '23L discusses his year as a student attorney in the Tax Clinic, helping clients resolve post-filing controversies with the IRS.
Ben Halligan ‘23L is from Nutley, New Jersey. He attended Colgate University where he received a B.A. in Mathematics. After college, he worked in tax accounting in New York City. At W&L Law, he is a member of the German Law Journal, Law Ambassadors, and Third Year Pledge Project Committee, and is Co-President of the Lewis F. Powell Jr. Distinguished Lecture Series Board and Sports Czars.
Why did you choose to participate in this clinic for your 3L year?
I joined the Tax Clinic because it gives students the opportunity to gain actual practice experience and provides a valuable service to people throughout Virginia. The Tax Clinic provides legal representation to low-income taxpayers who have post-filing controversies with the IRS or Virginia Department of Taxation, and students act as attorneys under the supervision of the Visiting Director, Kari Munro. The structure of the Clinic gives students the opportunity to learn about actual representation before we begin our legal practices. It is also a great educational experience—we learn so much about the law under the direction of Professor Munro and Dean Michelle Drumbl, who was Clinic Director in the fall semester and continues to participate in the Clinic.
What classes have prepared you to work in the Tax Clinic?
Federal Income Taxation of Individuals with Professor Pollard was the most important class to prepare me to work in the Tax Clinic. I worked in corporate tax before law school and was surprised at how much there was to learn about taxation of individuals. Since the IRS is an agency of the Department of the Treasury, I also found Administrative Law with Professor Murchison to be helpful in understanding how the IRS operates. Students in the Tax Clinic also attend a discussion-oriented classroom session each week, during which we review substantive issues and tax policy to continue our education and help us better serve clients.
Describe your schedule with the Tax Clinic.
Under ABA standards, clinic students are required to complete 212.5 hours of work each semester, which ends up being 15–16 hours each week. In addition to the classroom session and my weekly meeting with Professor Munro, I hold office hours twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These are two-hour blocks during which I work on client matters and answer calls from clients and people seeking consultations. Outside of those slated times, students are free to organize our work around our schedules. The flexibility of my schedule allows me to distribute my work evenly throughout the week and tackle any remaining items on the days that work best, which tend to be Tuesdays and Fridays.
What are some skills you have developed this year?
One skill I have developed this year is a stronger ability to work with clients. Our clients are busy people with their own schedules and commitments, and I’ve learned how to better communicate with them, work with their schedules, and learn what their goals are to better represent them. Clinic work has also been helpful in learning to work under time constraints and organize effectively. A deadline will not wait for me to finish work for another class, so I have developed a better ability to organize my work and schedule things ahead of time to stay organized.
What surprised you about the work you have done for the Clinic?
I was pleasantly surprised with the latitude that students in the Tax Clinic are given in representing our clients. At the beginning of the year, Dean Drumbl took the lead and gave us important direction with our cases. As the year has progressed and we have gained experience, Dean Drumbl and Professor Munro have allowed us to play a larger role in our clients’ cases and help make decisions on how to best represent them. We are still supervised by the Director and communicate all aspects of the case to her, but I appreciate the different ways that we can take the wheel and suggest strategies, decisions, and solutions to our clients’ tax controversies. This is one reason why I feel that my time in the Tax Clinic has done much to prepare me for practice.
What was your favorite aspect of your work with the Clinic?
When I began working in the Tax Clinic, I assumed that my conversations with clients would pertain mainly to their tax situations. As it turns out, this was not true. I was surprised with how I am able to connect with clients and learn about their lives outside of their taxes. Through our representation we learn about our clients’ families, jobs, and experiences. Clients love to discuss their interests, their children’s lives, and even the teams they root for. I love this part of the work—it is wonderful to be able to connect with clients in this way. As an added bonus to being part of the Clinic, chatting about football with Dean Drumbl has become a highlight of my week!
What was your biggest challenge working in the Clinic?
The biggest challenge I faced was learning the range of services that the Tax Clinic provides for its clients. There was steep learning curve at the beginning of the year. I found that learning about tax advocacy in class was very different than actually representing clients in their disputes with the IRS. For instance, when I began the year I had never prepared an Offer in Compromise to submit to the IRS or Virginia Department of Taxation, or work out an approach for a client being audited by the IRS. The positive side of this for the Tax Clinic’s students is that we learn new things with each case. Many clients were inherited from previous students, which means representation can be somewhat of a collaborative effort between class years, and we are building on the work and following the approaches of former students even after they leave the Tax Clinic and W&L.
Has this experience helped you figure out your post graduate plans, and if so how?
I plan to return to New York and work at Shearman and Sterling after graduation. I spent last summer at the firm working on the transactional side. Whatever practice group I end up working in, I am confident that tax law will play a role in my work, and I will be able to put my Tax Clinic experience to good use!