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Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson by Bob Probasco

Posted on July 24, 2019

We welcome regular guest blogger Bob Probasco. Bob is the director of the Low Income tax Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law. Prior to starting the clinic at Texas A&M, Bob had a long a varied career in different tax positions. Before law school, he spent more than twenty years in various accounting and business positions, including with one of the “Big Four” CPA firms and Mobil Oil Corporation. After law school and a year clerking with Judge Lindsay of the Northern District of Texas, he practiced tax law with the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight. He left T&K in 2014 and started a solo practice before switching to full time academia. Keith

I’ve been working in tax controversy for eighteen years now, but most of that was with a large law firm in Dallas. The tax system works fairly well for people like our clients. If they have a dispute with the IRS, they know exactly where to find (and can afford to hire) the right people to solve it. So I’ve known of Nina for a long time but I didn’t begin to really understand the full extent of her impact until I joined the LITC community in late 2016. For what it’s worth, here are some aspects of Nina’s work that stand out to this “new kid.”

Relentless warrior: I think someone else referred to Nina as a fierce warrior, which she is. But “relentless” is more impressive to me. The IRS is a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy and therefore incredibly difficult to change. It takes time and coming back, year after year after year, to achieve change. Most of us who beat our heads against a brick wall will lose our enthusiasm at some point. Nina absolutely will not stop. (Yes, she’s retiring – but that just means changing where she sits; her battles on behalf of taxpayers won’t stop.)

Educator: More than almost anyone I can think of, Nina has incorporated into her efforts the insight that to make the tax system work better, education (in a broad sense and of a lot of different groups) is critical. Her annual report is about not just identifying necessary reforms but also giving Congress a better understanding of how the system currently works and how problems arise. Her “Roadmap of a Tax Controversy” videos were originally designed for TAS employees. As she put it, no matter what they do in TAS, they have to understand the larger context in order to do their best. We’ve just seen the “subway map,” which will help taxpayers understand not only how complex the system is but how to navigate through it. And of course she’s directed a lot of research and advocacy into the specific topic of how the IRS needs to better educate taxpayers in notices and correspondence.

As the director of an academic LITC, this aspect of Nina’s work particularly impresses me. I will always point my students to the videos, the map, and the annual reports to Congress.

General: I had this thought initially when Nina spoke at the first Annual Grantee conference I attended, in December 2016. She was talking to her “troops” – the LITCs as much as TAS staff – in a different manner than I see with other audiences. She’s not just talking about issues, she’s giving us our orders. Nina loves her troops but demands a lot from us as well; she makes clear the need for our best efforts and explains things we need to do better. (Why are you doing so many CNCs instead of OICs? Can you find opportunities in litigation to give real teeth to the TBOR?) The mission is too important for us to give anything less.

Working in an LITC can be frustrating. We’re dealing with a huge bureaucracy with over-worked and under-trained employees while representing clients who may struggle to give us what we need to help them. We can’t always get the results we think our clients deserve. I suspect I’m far from the only one who walks out of Nina’s speeches not only with a lot of new ideas and clearer direction but also feeling re-energized. And I thought: exhausted from our efforts, perhaps feeling stressed and out-numbered and not confident in success, but now ready to charge up the hill? What a minute – that’s the movie scene with the general rallying her troops right before the big battle! Henry V at Agincourt, Aragorn before the Black Gate of Mordor, or Teddy Roosevelt at Kettle Hill are dramatic examples; add Nina to the list.

Builder: I confess that, before reading Keith’s article “History of Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics,” I wasn’t aware that Nina built from scratch the first non-academic LITC. Starting a new LITC isn’t easy, even with a strongly established tradition, support from an academic institution, and the help of the TAS LITC Program Office. What Nina faced was a far more daunting challenge but she succeeded. Of course, she has also built a strong Taxpayer Advocate Service; despite losing a great NTA, TAS will thrive – or they’ll have to answer to her.

In addition to organizations and institutions, Nina recruits people, to build the general community of those who want to help low-income taxpayers. Ted Afield’s post mentioned her making time to talk with all of the students at the 25th anniversary celebration for his LITC, in part so “she could influence them to always be thinking of how the tax system could be inadvertently hurting the most vulnerable among us.” I saw the same thing when she spoke at the 2017 annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas Tax Section. This was in June, when most students are busy with summer jobs or summer relaxing, but three of my former students from another law school attended the conference; Nina’s speech was the big draw. And when she spoke with them, at length, afterward? They will remember that for a long time.

In my brief time in the LITC community, I still haven’t fully realized Nina’s impact on the tax world. But that’s true (to a lesser degree) even for the veterans such as Keith, Les, Christine and all those who sent in their reflections. If Nina never did anything more, we would continue for many years to see changes that trace back to her tenure as NTA.

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