August 25, 2020 People in Tax

Interview with Ellen P. Aprill

By Jeremiah Coder, Washington, DC

Editor’s Note: ABA Tax Times interviewer Jeremiah Coder recently spoke with Ellen P. Aprill, John E. Anderson Chair in Tax Law, Loyola Law School, about her diverse career in government, private practice and as a professor.

ATT: Hi Ellen! You’ve had a very diverse career—employment in all three branches of the federal government (judicial clerkship, working on Capitol Hill, and time at Treasury), private practice, and a long academic career. Can you tell us what got you interested in tax in the first place?

EA: You’re right! Moreover, before going to law school, I worked for a Congressional agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, where my job was to “translate” scientific work into easier-to-understand English for members of Congress and their staffs. (My years of teaching Freshman Composition while in grad school helped me a lot in doing that work!) My OTA experience convinced me that I would enjoy law and law school. Like a number of English majors, I had already taken the LSAT.

In common with others in my Baby Boomer cohort, especially women, I went to law school a bit later in life, after a number of years doing graduate work in Renaissance literature and the year working on the Hill. When I started at Georgetown, a friend from my University of Michigan undergraduate days told me another U. of M. grad was teaching there—Patricia White, now the former dean of the University of Miami Law School—and I should go say hello. I hadn’t known her when I was at U. of M. but we had many friends in common. When we first spoke, she asked if I liked sets of interlocking rules and thinking about characterization questions. I said I did. She said tax law would be a good match for me, and she was right. I often say that reading cases is like reading a novel—extracting from the specific—while reading statutes is like reading poetry—asking why each word is where it is, why it was chosen, what repetition of a word (or lack thereof) means, deciding what weight to give to an author’s intent or place in history. Literature, it turns out, was good preparation for tax law.

ATT: Early in your career, you clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Having seen nearly four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence on tax issues, do you think the Court’s approach to tax has changed at all in that timeframe, or has it been fairly consistent?

EA: Justice White felt strongly about granting certiorari for circuit splits, whatever the area of law. I don’t know whether that fact is important to the current justices. I think in recent years application of administrative law doctrines to tax is the most important change.

ATT: What, if anything, surprises you most about the practice of tax law/tax profession? Are there any significant changes in the profession that you have observed?

EA: When I started practicing, now decades ago, I was surprised at how much of the work took place on the telephone. Today, I think about how specialized tax law has become—but have no answers about ameliorating that.

The second part of that question is important. I have seen some positive changes regarding treatment of women during my professional life. If I had gone straight through to law school after undergraduate school, I would have finished before Justice White had begun to hire women. I have always assumed (but never was brave enough to ask him—I was always a bit intimidated by him) that he came to a realization, as his daughter grew older, that he needed to treat other men’s daughters the way he wanted other men to treat his daughter. I think the profession has continued to make strides in recognizing women’s contributions since then.

ATT: You have been both a vice chair and council director in the Tax Section. How did you first get involved?

EA: As I recall, I started in order to keep in touch with people who had been in Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy. I continued because of the quality of the programs, the ability it gave me to keep in touch with practitioners, and the fact that so many tax professors are involved as well. Because tax profs are able to see so many other professors quite often at the meetings, I think we are closer than law profs in other fields.

ATT: Any significant mentors/influences in the profession?

EA: Well, I met my husband, now retired, through the Tax Section of the County Bar. One of my stepsons is a tax partner in a large NY firm. There were lots of tax jokes at our wedding. So you never know just what benefits you will reap from involvement in professional activities!

ATT: With various aspects of education upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, do you, as a law professor, foresee any significant impacts to legal education?

EA: I think having a significant amount of teaching online is here to stay, even if/when we go back to the classroom (which, of course, I miss). I am working hard right now to follow best online practices. That means having available a lot of asynchronous material such as recording short, narrated PowerPoints for students to watch prior to class; writing self-assessment quizzes; finding helpful videos that students might enjoy; etc. Class time can then be used to dig into problems, what some describe as a flipped classroom. I didn’t teach last spring, so I will have to see how teaching online and having Zoom for class goes.

ATT: You’ve had significant influence on the development of non-profit taxation, which has been a large focus of your academic writings. What excites/concerns you most about the next few years of developments in this area?

EA: We, including the nonprofit sector, all need to pay attention to equity and inclusion issues—far more than, to our shame, we have up to now. For charitable-giving issues, use of non-c(3) vehicles—such as LLCs; c(4)s; crowdfunding for causes without forming a (c)(3)—are likely to demand attention at both the state and federal levels. The extent to which nonprofits are permitted to engage in political activity—both lobbying and campaign intervention—will, I think, continue to be an issue.

ATT: When you’re not busy thinking about tax, what do you do to unwind? How important is it to maintain balance for mental health?

EA: Well, theater and the symphony used to play a big part in my life pre-COVID—it is very odd to have a summer without the Hollywood Bowl. Like a number of my fellow tax lawyers (I know because friends I have made at the Tax Section share recommendations), I am a voracious reader of mysteries. I am especially fond of mysteries from a different time or place. For example, I have enjoyed the Anne Cleeves “Shetland” series and Peter Tremayne’s “Sister Fidelma” series where the protagonist is a lawyer in seventh century Ireland.

ATT: Do you have a favorite depiction of a lawyer in a movie or book?

EA: I can say that when “LA Law” was big, I received many comments on student evaluation forms saying that I needed to dress the way the women who were lawyers on that show did!

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