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Reflections on Nina Olson from Ted Afield

Posted on July 15, 2019

We welcome Ted Afield to provide his thoughts on Nina’s impact. Ted is an associate clinical professor of law and the Mark and Evelyn Trammell Professor and Director of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Georgia State Law School. Ted and his clinic have partnered with the tax clinic at Harvard on several amicus briefs. The Georgia State tax clinic has been around for a while, has developed a terrific web site that serves many taxpayers and clinicians and covers a broad geographic area in Georgia. Keith

Unlike some of the other folks who have posted wonderful reflections about Nina, I do not have as long of a personal history with her. I am still a relative newcomer in the low-income taxpayer clinic community. While I am new, my clinic, however, is not. I am fortunate to direct a clinic with a long and proud history behind it. Accordingly, not long after I started at Georgia State, I found myself wanting to celebrate our clinic’s twenty-fifth anniversary. I had gotten to know Keith, and I asked him if he could perhaps pave the way by introducing me to Nina so that I could see if I could convince her to take the time out of her schedule to fly down to Atlanta to be the speaker at our twenty-fifth anniversary event. Keith said I should just e-mail her directly. Now, I assume that Nina must get significantly more e-mails in a day than most of us do. Like Rob Nassau, I had never met Nina before, and so I thought there was a very good chance that my e-mail might get lost in the shuffle (as it very likely would have had I been on the receiving end). I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nina replied immediately and readily agreed to come down and speak at our event. I still assumed that, given how busy she was, she would likely have to give her speech and then leave relatively quickly. Nina made me 0 for 2 in my assumptions. She insisted on getting to know our clinic students (and we have a lot of them), and she took the time to speak with all of them, to share her thoughts with them about their careers, and to really listen to their experiences in the clinic and what they perceived to be the most pressing issues facing low-income taxpayers. While speakers can often time revert to chatting with faculty and distinguished guests in the audience, Nina was laser focused on wanting to communicate with our students so that she could make sure that she could influence them to always be thinking of how the tax system could be inadvertently hurting the most vulnerable among us. And, unsurprisingly, she also gave an incredibly dynamic and impassioned speech indicating that she was intimately familiar with the history of our clinic and how it fit in the larger work of the low-income taxpayer community, the Taxpayer Advocate Service, and her work as the National Taxpayer Advocate. She was able to command the attention of an audience that consisted of students, academics, IRS attorneys, and private practitioners, which is not easy to do.

I mention this story because, while Nina’s energy, creativity, and tireless advocacy have been rightly praised by so many, what I think is a bit underappreciated about Nina, especially outside the academic community, is how critical she has been towards creating an environment in which academic tax clinics could thrive. While the grant funding that she helped secure is of course incredibly important to academic institutions that always have one (sometimes all) eyes on the budget when considering whether to start a clinic, what is even more important is how Nina approached her job as one that would engage both the academic and practitioner communities simultaneously and would look for ways to apply academic theory and research to practical problems impacting the most vulnerable in our society. She moves seamlessly between the IRS, academic, and practitioner communities, and I think we might all take that a bit for granted given how rare that is. Her ability to do this has been critical, however, for demonstrating that tax issues are social justice issues and that applied tax research is critical towards improving the lives of vulnerable populations.

Although Nina came out of the practitioner rather than the academic community, she from her earliest years as National Taxpayer Advocate recognized the importance of developing academic partnerships with people like Keith, Les, and other early critical tax theorists who focused on the intersection of poverty and tax law and who were among the early academics who built out the theoretical support for practical policy solutions for which Nina could advocate. Indeed, she infused her annual reports with rigorous empirical research and qualitative theoretical and applied analysis to make sure that her policy proposals could never be effectively attacked for being based solely on anecdotal evidence or on partisan political consideration. For those who criticize the academy for sometimes being too far removed from issues that touch people’s lives directly or that directly impact the practitioner community, the practical research and policy advocacy that came out of this work and that improved the lives of countless taxpayers serves as a stark rebuke.

Nina’s efforts created an environment in which academic tax clinics can present themselves as being exemplars of what an academic clinic should be. As a result, academic tax clinics now occupy a space in which they can serve as an effective bridge between academic research and issues that directly impact individual taxpayers. As a result, the future of academic clinics is bright. Looking around at many of the country’s academic clinics, what you will find is that a new generation of tax academics is arriving to take them over, eager to build on this pioneering work by training future attorneys with a strong sense of why tax is a social justice issue, by helping to identify issues that could be ripe for legislative change, and by conducting academic research to further flesh out the theoretical basis for enhancing tax justice and taxpayer rights. Academic clinics predate Nina’s work as National Taxpayer Advocate, but her efforts have ensured their future for decades to come. As someone who is one of the recent arrivals in the academic LITC community, I am incredibly grateful, and I also feel a tremendous sense of responsibility. Nina showed what could be done by a gifted researcher and advocate who wanted to make the tax system more just and fair whenever she could. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, but I’m looking forward to all of our efforts to do so in the years ahead.

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