ADR: deep in the heart of taxes? (Sorry)

bob_probasco_bio-1In Fall 2020, Texas A&M University School of Law began offering its students the opportunity to participate in a Tax Dispute Resolution Clinic.  The clinic is led by Professor Bob Probasco, recently honored as a “Super Lawyer” by Thomson Reuters.  Toward the beginning of the semester, the students learn about negotiation and practice their negotiation skills in a training session taught jointly by Professor Probasco and Professor Peter Reilly, who also serves as Associate Director of the Dispute Resolution Program. 

The Tax Dispute Resolution Clinic provides representation to taxpayers who cannot afford to retain a lawyer.  Most of the clinic’s client matters involve long-term representation, but Professor Probasco notes the central importance of negotiation: “Even when our cases wind up in court they are almost always still negotiated and settled with opposing counsel.  I’ve had only two cases, in 20 years of practice, in which the judge ruled on part or all of the merits of the case.  The first point at which Tax Court judges typically have any substantive interaction with us is to sign a stipulated decision negotiated between the attorneys.”  Whether in court or an administrative proceeding before the IRS, approaching the dispute with a negotiating mindset is critical for the best results.

The Tax Dispute Resolution Clinic also offers more short-term assistance that focuses quite explicitly on the negotiation of tax disputes.  For example, when the Tax Court visits Dallas (which occurs 6 – 8 times per year), clinic students show up along with other pro bono volunteers.  The judge then gives the taxpayers appearing without an attorney the opportunity to speak with the clinic students or other pro bono attorneys.  Sometimes, the students provide only advice to taxpayers on how to present their cases at trial.  Often, however, the students are able to negotiate with IRS attorneys on behalf of the taxpayers and successfully reach settlements.  Two or three times each year, the clinic also participates in a Saturday morning “Settlement Day,” in collaboration with IRS attorneys, the SMU tax clinic, and the pro bono program of the Texas State Bar Association’s Tax Section.  The IRS, taxpayers and lawyers support this program, thus allowing pro bono attorneys and students to advise clients and reach settlements.  During the pandemic, both trial sessions and settlement days have moved online and the clinic has helped taxpayers in other cities, in Texas and beyond.

Turning to a different set of clinics – the law school’s Community Development Clinic and the Entrepreneurship Clinic - four students joined with Professor Nancy Welsh in Fall 2019 to conduct a two-day conflict resolution skills training program for case managers at the Presbyterian Night Shelter in Fort Worth.  Among other things, the students and Professor Welsh met with Presbyterian Night Shelter leadership and staff to learn more about the organization’s operations, typical conflicts and legal questions in order to create customized simulations and develop a responsive presentation on Fair Housing and landlord-tenant law. The Presbyterian Night Shelter was started by a group of Presbyterian ministers as an overnight shelter for Tarrant County’s homeless population. Today, the organization is the largest provider of services to the county’s homeless, providing both emergency and long-term housing and other services to help guests overcome barriers to permanent housing.