June 14, 2019 Pro Bono Matters

A Retrospective Interview with 2014-2016 Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow Patrick Thomas

In 2014, Patrick Thomas began a two-year commitment with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, in Indianapolis, IN, through the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship. In a previous interview, Patrick described how at Indiana University he developed his interest in helping low-income and immigrant communities. The experience inspired him to get involved with the Indianapolis clinic starting the summer after his first year of law school and led eventually to his broader involvement in the low-income taxpayer clinic (LITC) community.

Patrick is the founder and director of the Notre Dame Tax Clinic, and he (PT) recently discussed with ABA Tax Times (ATT) his experience during and after his Fellowship.

ATT: Could you tell us about the work you did at Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic in Indianapolis?

PT: Like any attorney at an LITC, I primarily defended clients against IRS enforcement actions, including audits and collections. While this often involved bringing nonfilers and others back into tax compliance, our cases took place in many different procedural settings—all the way from a phone call to IRS collections to litigation in the U.S. Tax Court.

We also focused our efforts on representation and education of Indianapolis’s refugee population, along with others who found it difficult to interface with the IRS. Achieving tax compliance can be difficult for native-born taxpayers; the problem is significantly compounded for someone who speaks English as a second language. Our clinic partnered with local refugee resettlement agencies to hold tax education workshops, which included topics as basic as defining what a “tax” is in the first place, to properly filling out a Form W-4 and choosing a competent tax return preparer.

ATT: What was your biggest challenge there?

PT: Our organization’s biggest challenge was the mismatch between our resources and the community’s need for effective tax representation. While we were blessed with a larger staff structure than many LITCs, the community’s need still often outstripped our ability to respond. We tried not to turn away any eligible clients, but often clients with less time-sensitive matters had to wait for more pressing cases to resolve before we could assist them.

On an individual level, my fellowship taught me valuable lessons on interviewing and counseling clients in difficult situations, along with balancing my empathy and commitment to clients with my own personal needs. Law students intending to pursue a career in tax law may not expect clients to break down in their office; but clients often came to the clinic with more than just a tax issue.  They’d have a tax issue that resulted from a divorce, debilitating accident, or mental illness, among other complications. Effectively responding to the IRS necessitates a deep dive into those underlying facts. Effectively eliciting those facts, building trust with a client, and reckoning with the gravity of these situations was never easy. I cannot say I knew precisely what I was doing with every individual client in these situations. In retrospect, I tried to build a trusting relationship through actively listening and providing honest counsel. It did not always work: sometimes these situations delayed our case plan or even led to our withdrawal from representation.

Although law schools are increasingly equipping students with the framework on secondary trauma (in addition to interviewing and counseling skills), young attorneys may not experience these issues early on if not engaged in a client-facing work setting. Taking a clinic in law school or working for a clinic pro bono early in practice is an excellent way to gain this sort of critical experience.

ATT: What was the most rewarding part of your Fellowship?

PT: My most rewarding experiences occurred when I could solve a problem that was difficult for a client to comprehend or effectively deal with, which could result in a long-term positive impact. For example, I worked with clients who were repeat nonfilers: perhaps one difficult event caused the first year of nonfiling, and the rest resulted from the inertia of the first and fear of the IRS. By the time they walked in the door of our clinic, their problems seemed insurmountable. Our clients’ long journeys to tax compliance could be challenging and required patience from both client and attorney; the client’s sense of relief on the other end made those challenges worth it.

In a different vein, I also enjoyed engaging in capacity-building work in the LITC. For example, I worked with a retired database consultant to design and construct a new case management database, which helped the LITC attorneys accurately track each case and the statistics required by the LITC program. While I enjoy direct client work, attorneys (believe it or not) only have so many hours in a day. I always enjoyed helping our attorneys reclaim some of those hours to focus on the core mission of legal representation.

ATT: Tell us about your career since the Fellowship ended: Where have you worked? What issues and client populations have you focused on?

PT: After my fellowship ended, I founded the Notre Dame Tax Clinic, which I currently direct. Like in my prior position, we focus on direct representation before the IRS and in tax litigation. But in an academic clinic, I get to be a force multiplier. That is, in addition to direct client work, an academic tax clinic provides the opportunity to teach emerging lawyers about federal tax procedure and legal skills such as case management, interviewing, counseling, negotiation, research, and writing. Many of my former students have gone into tax practice or have sought out tax-related work in their firms. They regularly note the impact that clinical education had on their careers and value the pro bono work that clinics provide.

In a similar vein, an academic clinic also provides an opportunity to effectively highlight systemic issues in our tax administration system. I now have the time, resources, and credibility to research and speak on these issues. For example, in partnership with Frank DiPietro (current director of the LITC at Indiana Legal Services and another former fellow), I have been able to advocate before our state department of revenue on a host of problems, which to their credit the department has significantly improved over the past two years. Hoosiers now no longer need to provide a 20% down payment to establish a payment plan; they can more effectively intervene when faced with a wage levy or bank garnishment; and thanks to recently passed legislation, Hoosiers can now obtain their tax withholding information directly from the department. While individual casework is personally fulfilling because of the individual connections we forge with our clients, these changes are systemically impactful, as they positively affect the lives of millions of Hoosiers, now and in the future.

ATT: How did the Fellowship impact your career trajectory?

PT: I can safely say that I would not be where I am today without the Tax Section’s Public Service Fellowship. It opened previously unknown doors, ultimately leading to my current position at the Notre Dame Law School.  Attendance at Tax Section meetings is a requirement of all Public Service Fellows, and it was through those meetings that I have made my most fundamental professional relationships, both among young lawyers and with more experienced mentors. The Fellowship also led to speaking and writing opportunities within the Section. Today, I coedit Effectively Representing Your Client Before the IRS and regularly speak on panels at Section meetings. Becoming a Section member and applying for the Fellowship count among the most important decisions I have made in my legal career.

ATT: How have you been involved in the Tax Section or with Tax Section members during and after the Fellowship?

PT: In addition to my writing and speaking activities with the Section, I have been active on some of the Section’s regulatory comment projects, which have given my students an opportunity to participate in influencing administrative policy before it is written. Beyond these purely professional activities, many lawyers that I have met at Section meetings are now some of my closest professional colleagues and friends.

ATT: What advice would you give those considering an application for the Fellowship?

PT: First: Apply! Your idea for your fellowship need not be earth-shattering to be considered. There are millions of taxpayers throughout the country in need of some type of tax assistance.

Second: While I do not speak for the fellowship committee, my own take is that the most important factors in selecting a fellow are (1) potential for longevity of the project and (2) commitment and experience of the fellow’s sponsor. To the extent possible, prospective fellows should design their projects to outlive them at their sponsoring organization. Moreover, the sponsor should have the experience necessary to effectively supervise the fellow, along with a demonstrated commitment to do so.

Finally, feel free to contact me or other former fellows for advice in applying. I am always happy to provide time for this important Tax Section initiative.

Donations to the Tax Assistance Public Service (TAPS) endowment fund support the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship program, which provides two-year fellowships for recent law school graduates working with nonprofit organizations providing tax-related legal assistance to underserved communities. Learn more at www.abatapsendowment.org.


Section of Taxation members can discuss this article in the ABA Tax Times Community. ➔