Roland Hartung ’18L Argues Case Before U.S. Tax Court
3L Roland Hartung is a student attorney in the Tax Clinic at W&L Law. This semester, he had the unique experience of taking a case to trial, something that has only happened once before in the Clinic’s ten-year history.
What is a “typical” experience for a student attorney in the tax clinic? How has your experience been different?
Much of the work we do in the Tax Clinic focuses on helping our clients respond to the IRS or the Virginia Department of Taxation. Our clients may receive a notice of deficiency or other inquiries, and we help them resolve any disputes they may have with those agencies. Dealing with these agencies is daunting for many of our clients, and we help them navigate the often-complicated tax landscape. We also assist our clients with tax court cases, but almost all of them settle at some point before trial.
My experience differed significantly. My main client for the semester was a married couple from Virginia disputing the IRS’s determination that a settlement they received for physical injury should be considered gross income. Unlike most of our other cases, the IRS refused to settle, resulting in the Clinic’s second trial in 10 years.
Describe your preparation for trial.
I had a little less than a month to prepare for trial. This required me to become familiar with the specific facts of the case and the law in a very short period of time. I began closely studying the evidence we had, including the settlement document, prior complaints, medical history and other documents. The time constraints also required me to conduct extensive legal research on a topic I had only briefly dealt with during my Federal Income Tax class a year before. All this research culminated in our pre-trial brief, which combined a summary of the facts and the applicable law from our point of view.
Once we submitted the pre-trial brief, I began my preparation for the actual trial. This included meeting with the clients, preparing exhibits, direct examination questions, and opening and closing statements.
Talk about the trial itself.
The trial was an incredible experience. The U.S. Tax Court was travelling for this trial, which meant that the case was heard in Roanoke instead of Washington, D.C. where the Court normally sits. The majority of the clinic traveled to Roanoke to watch and support me during the trial.
After Professor Drumbl introduced me, I began to argue our case. This included everything from laying the foundation for and introducing evidence, direct examinations of our two witnesses, as well as answering questions from the court. All in all, the case went very smoothly. This was in part due to the skills I acquired during the Third-Year Litigation Immersion.
Being able to conduct all aspects of a trial was an exhilarating experience and I am thankful that Professor Drumbl gave me the opportunity to do so.
How did Professor Drumbl and/or your fellow student attorneys assist you before, during and after the trial?
Professor Drumbl was very helpful every step of the way. She was always available to bounce ideas around and provided suggestions on developing an effective case strategy. I also received a lot of assistance from Alexander Lewitt and Christopher Hurley, two of my fellow Tax Clinic students. Alex and Chris assisted me throughout the whole trial experience by researching specific issues and by always being willing to discuss issues that came up. I also received tremendous support from everyone else in the clinic. Every single member of the clinic was always willing to discuss the case and provide different perspectives.
What are the next steps for this case?
We are currently waiting for a verdict from the Tax Court. We recently submitted our post-trial brief, and we hope to receive a favorable outcome.
What was the most rewarding part of this experience for you personally?
It is hard to pin down one individual aspect. It was incredibly rewarding to help our clients and give them their day in court. Additionally, it was a great experience to have full control over every aspect of the trial. That is an experience that very few law students ever get to have, and I am incredibly grateful that W&L provides its students with such meaningful opportunities.
How does this experience (either this trial or in the tax clinic generally) further your larger professional goals?
I have always had a special interest in tax and litigation. There is a strong possibility that I will be working in Tax Controversy after school, so this experience will absolutely come in handy. At the very least, I hope I will be ready if I ever have another tax trial!