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August 25, 2016 From the Chair

Hail and Farewell

By George C. Howell, III, Hunton & Williams LLP, Richmond, VA

It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Chair of the Tax Section over the past year.  My time as Chair generally has flown by, although there were a few moments when the clock hands seemed to slow down a bit (e.g., reviewing a 100-plus page government submission over a weekend).  With the devotion of our volunteer members and the help of our dedicated staff, much has been accomplished.  Please indulge me as I reflect on some of the highlights of the past twelve months. 

Highlights of the Past Year

There are too many to list, but here is a sampler: 

  • Three successful meetings—Fall, Midyear, and May—with high attendance and loads of high quality CLE and other programming; 
  • The insightful Fall plenary session remarks from Nina Olson about the future of the IRS and our tax system; 
  • A thought-provoking Midyear plenary speech by Professor Ed Kleinbard regarding U.S. fiscal policy; 
  • The first-time speech to the Section by Mark Mazur, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy, at the May plenary session; 
  • The increase in our fundraising for the TAPS endowment, enabling us to surpass the  $425,000 mark in total contributions and pledges;
  • The formation of a TAPS Endowment Task Force to guide our future fundraising efforts;
  • The continued promotion of the Section’s pro bono and public service efforts;
  • The implementation of the Section’s new Diversity and Inclusion Plan;
  • The participation of ABA President Paulette Brown in the LGBT Ally Toolkit panel at the Midyear Meeting;
  • The success that the Diversity Committee and the Young Lawyers Forum (YLF) have had in putting on top-notch programming and attracting younger tax lawyers from more diverse backgrounds to the Section;
  • The rebranding of the NewsQuarterly as the ABA Tax Times and its conversion to an all-digital format;
  • The creation of the first Chair’s video message;
  • Our continuing cooperation with RPTE, including a joint membership drive;
  • Our fall and spring courtesy calls with IRS, Treasury, and the various congressional tax-writing staffs; and last, but certainly not least,
  • The dramatic increase in the volume of law improvement comments submitted to the government. 

There were also some sad and bittersweet moments.  With the passing of Ken Gideon and Phil Mann, we lost two giants of the Section and the tax bar.  In addition, the Section’s highest honor—its Distinguished Service Award—was presented posthumously to Ken.  The acceptance speech by his widow, Carol, was the most poignant event of the year.  It was one of those times that induces both tears and smiles. 

In the remainder of this column, I will discuss the progress that we have made in the three focus areas that I outlined in my first column a year ago.  I also will describe some of the work that remains to be done in these areas. 

Pro Bono and Public Service

The Tax Section’s vibrant pro bono and public service programs have been nurtured and developed by my predecessors over a number of years.  My job in this area was made easy by all the hard work that was done in the past.  For example, I inherited the innovative Brunswick Fellowship program, which funds recent law school graduates for two years in representing low-income taxpayers.  The Section also continues to provide many opportunities for members to participate directly in pro bono activities through the Tax Court calendar call, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), and Adopt-A-Base programs.  I am pleased with the way that all of these programs have thrived over the past year. 

While cheerleading for the Section’s pro bono and public service efforts, my main focus was to ramp up our fundraising for the TAPS endowment to provide financial support for them.  In order for the Section’s pro bono and public service programs to continue to flourish, it is critical that they have this sort of dedicated funding.  Our goal is to raise $2.5 million over a five-year period, which is a lofty goal.   Over the past year, total donations and pledges to TAPS have increased from approximately $219,000 to in excess of $425,000.  We are a long way from our goal, however, so much fundraising work remains to be done. 

What can you do to support the Section’s pro bono and public service efforts?  First, I strongly encourage you to become involved in one or more of our pro bono programs if you have not already done so.  All of us have an obligation to give back to the tax system in general and to underserved taxpayers in particular.  Second, please give generously to the TAPS endowment through the ABA Fund for Justice and Education. 

Diversity and Inclusion

A second area of focus for me has been diversity and inclusion.  A little over a year ago, thanks to the efforts of my predecessors, Michael Hirschfeld and Armando Gomez, the Tax Section Council adopted an updated Diversity and Inclusion Plan.  The adoption of this plan was critical for two reasons.  First, it was the right thing to do.  Second, attracting young lawyers, who are inherently more diverse than the lawyers of my generation, is vital to the continued health of the Section.  The new plan has been a step forward in our ongoing effort to increase our membership rolls by bringing in a younger and more diverse group of members.  I am delighted to report that the Section has made substantial headway in implementing it. 

I also want to highlight the success of the Section’s Diversity Committee and YLF.  The Diversity Committee has provided a plethora of informative programs with an emphasis on diversity issues.  I attended a number of these programs, including the LGBT Ally Toolkit panel at the Midyear Meeting in which Paulette Brown, the first female African-American ABA President, participated.  The YLF once again sponsored the Annual Law Student Tax Challenge, which is a wonderful tool for introducing law students to the Section.  The YLF also organized a number of first-rate programs aimed at young lawyers, including the Tax Bridge to Practice.  This latter program provides an introduction to tax practice and covers both substantive tax and career-building topics.  Both the Diversity Committee and the YLF have served as magnets in attracting new members to the Section. 

How can you help with diversity and inclusion?  I urge each of you to make the Section and its committees a more welcoming place.  Help us expand the diversity of the Section by bringing young lawyers from your firm or organization to a Section meeting.  Welcome all new faces at committee meetings.  Ask a lawyer from underrepresented constituencies to work on a committee project or participate in a panel.  Attend Diversity Committee or YLF programs.  This sort of grassroots effort will pay big dividends over time.

Law Improvement

I am pleased to report that the Section’s law improvement efforts ramped substantially over the past year.  During the last twelve months, our committees have completed 36 government submissions, which is a much higher number than in any recent year.  I am proud of the high-quality law improvement comments that were submitted this year.  In addition, some of these reports were extraordinarily complex and lengthy.  For example, two recent submissions—the comments on the new partnership audit rules, and the proposed section 385 regulations—were more than 80 pages long (176 pages in the case of the section 385 report).  In addition to addressing complex subject matters, these two projects required multiple committees and large numbers of volunteers to work together.  The resulting high-quality reports are proof of what the Section can do when all of its resources are brought to bear. 

All of this year’s government submissions were the result of the outstanding work of the volunteers from our substantive committees who undertake these projects.  I feel confident that these submissions have had, and will continue to have, a significant positive impact on the thinking of the congressional tax-writing staffs, the Treasury, and the Internal Revenue Service regarding the various subject matters covered by the submissions. 

I applaud and appreciate all of the strong law improvement efforts made by our committees over the past year, but we cannot relax because much work lies ahead.  The government will continue to look to us for technical comments and practical guidance on legislative and administrative law changes, and we must answer the call. 

What can you do to help?  I urge each of you to participate in law improvement projects with your favorite committee.  I have found participation in these projects to be one of the most rewarding aspects of Section membership, and I think you will, too.

Thanks and a Baton Pass

It has been my privilege and good fortune to have been surrounded by a talented and energetic team of officers and Council Directors, who have performed superbly over the past year and have made my job easy.  I want to extend special thanks to Chuck Rettig, Vice-Chair (Administration), Julie Divola, Vice-Chair (Publications), Peter Blessing, Vice-Chair (Government Relations), Tom Callahan, Vice-Chair (Committee Operations), Joan Arnold, Vice-Chair (CLE), and Wells Hall, Vice-Chair (Pro Bono and Outreach).  I also want to express my deep appreciation for all of the good counsel and guidance that I received from Armando Gomez, our Immediate Past Chair, Bill Caudill, our Chair-Elect, and Karen Hawkins, the incoming Chair-Elect.

I also want to salute once again the many contributions made by the Section’s superb staff, led by our executive director, Janet In.  Although their work is largely behind the scenes, they make it possible for the Section to function smoothly. During my year as Chair, I came to more fully appreciate all that our staff does, and I am grateful for all of their efforts (and patience) on my behalf.  They deserve a warm and appreciative round of applause. 

I am thankful for all that has been accomplished during my year as Chair, but much unfinished business lies ahead.  The challenges that the next Chair will face include (but by no means are limited to) addressing budgetary issues, continuing the fundraising for the TAPS endowment, maintaining a high level of law improvement activity, and implementing the new ABA-wide CLE diversity policy.  I can assure you that I am turning the Section over to very capable hands when Bill Caudill succeeds me as Chair in early August.  With your support, I know that Bill will propel the Section forward and continue its good work. 

Let me close by paraphrasing that great American songwriter, Jimmy Buffett: 

Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic,
But I had a good year all the way. 

Ave atque vale