chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 11, 2022 Pro Bono Matters

A Sit-Down with Andrew VanSingel

By Andrew R. Roberson, McDermott Will & Emery, Chicago, IL

Editor’s Note: One of Andy Roberson’s first columns for Pro Bono Matters back in 2016 was an interview with Professor Keith Fogg. Five years later, we thought it would be appropriate to interview Andrew VanSingel, another individual who has dedicated his career to providing pro bono and public services to low-income taxpayers. After graduating law school, Andrew started as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) trainer at Ladder Up before becoming the Director of the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) at Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) for Cook County, Illinois. In 2017, Andrew became the Local Taxpayer Advocate (LTA) for the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) in Chicago. He has been involved with the Tax Section and American Bar Association (ABA) at large for several years, holding numerous positions with the Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee, Young Lawyers Division, and Disaster Legal Services Program. In this interview, Andrew discusses how he got into tax law and his experiences assisting taxpayers both in the LITC community and while working at TAS.

Q: Your career so far has been focused on tax law and public service. What was it that got you into tax and public service?

A: I came from a working-class background, and to be candid, I saw the legal profession as a path to financial security. That was quite ironic given that upon graduation, this expectation was in stark contrast with reality—I was unemployed, my net worth depended on how much gas I had in my rusted-out car, and I lived in my girlfriend’s parent’s basement! Furthering the irony was that my first legal job at PSLS paid a starting salary of $40,000, which was not that much more than I made before making the quarter-million dollar investment in law school. But I really was excited to be where I was at that time. While attending law school, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the school’s VITA Program. During the filing season, I spent a few hours each week preparing tax returns for low-to moderate-income taxpayers. I vividly remember one client—who was going through a difficult time in her life—giving me a hug while holding back tears as her refund was going to ease some of her financial troubles. In that moment I thought about how the simplest of efforts could have a profound impact on the lives of others. It may sound like a cliché or overly dramatic, but I can point to that soggy mid-winter evening in 2009 as the point in time that I ditched my ambitions of being a rainmaker and instead put the pieces in place to embark on a career in public service.

Q: What was your experience like at PSLS and what are you most proud of during your tenure there?

A: Working at PSLS was an incredibly rewarding but challenging experience. On day one, with little controversy experience, I inherited 90 cases and also found myself in a position of being tax counsel for the organization’s 75+ attorneys on various legal matters. Thankfully, I was plugged into the network of other clinicians through the ABA Tax Section Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee, and had access to LITC Hall of Famers Susan Morgenstern, Keith Fogg, Les Book, and Carlton Smith. So, even though I was the only tax attorney at PSLS in the first year (before bringing on another attorney), I never felt alone and for that reason I don’t think there is a better way to demonstrate the value of being an ABA member.

I represented hundreds of taxpayers while at PSLS, with some very memorable cases. These cases involved: (1) high-stakes victories, where the consequence could result in years of economic hardships; (2) low-chance-of-success cases, where we obtained results when the odds were not in the taxpayer’s favor; and (3) life-changing cases, where advocacy efforts made a lasting impact on taxpayers.

Two specific cases serve as bookends for my time at PSLS. The first was in my first year at PSLS, when I represented a taxpayer who spent most of his life financially independent until a rare bone disease forced him from his high-salaried career to being on disability. His wife divorced him months later. By the time he found me, he was living in a van on several hundred dollars per month. His disability claim was pending. Due to a tax debt caused by his employer switching him from a wage earner to an independent contractor (arguably part of the employer’s plan to push him out of the company), his retroactive award was at risk of an offset from the IRS. I succeeded in protecting his retroactive award but was saddened to learn only a few weeks after I resolved his case that he had late-stage pancreatic cancer and only months to live. He was at terms with his fate, expressed his gratitude to me, and stated that my efforts were not for nothing; had this happened a few months earlier, he would have died penniless. With my help, he said, “at least now I can die with dignity.”

A more uplifting example is a matter I settled at the end of my time at PSLS. The taxpayer’s debt was based on a quarter-million dollar assessment of trust fund penalties after her ex-husband created a corporation in her name and failed to remit employment tax payments. I prepared an Offer in Compromise through a CDP hearing, but we reached an impasse on her ability to pay based on a disagreement of whether a Parent PLUS Loan was considered an allowable expense. I stressed to the IRS representatives that not only was their analysis incorrect, but also the amount of the disallowance resulted in a change in the offer payment from around $7,500 to $8,600. I advised the Service that the $7,500 was really at the top end of what she could afford, and that it did not make sense to delay this resolution for $1,100. I also stated that her financial situation fluctuated, and that it was possible that if the matter were appealed, her ability to pay would go down. We could not reach a settlement, so I challenged the determination in the U.S. Tax Court, which remanded the case back for another determination. The IRS then took into account the Parent PLUS Loan. Nonetheless, while we were challenging this matter the client’s financial situation worsened so I revised the offer to around $2,000. This offer was ultimately accepted, ending five years and hundreds of hours of work. The client was relieved: “I can live my life now.”

Q: You’ve been very involved with the Tax Section and the ABA at large over the years, particularly on the disaster relief side. What led you to become so involved?

A: Timing is everything. When I started at PSLS, I inherited the outgoing LITC Director and former Christine Brunswick Public Service Fellow Vijay Raghavan’s mentor, Susan Morgenstern (formerly of Cleveland Legal Aid and now my co-worker at TAS). Susan tapped me into the Tax Section, and as I stated earlier, the connections made there often served as a lifeline for me. My involvement with the ABA began as a source of personal and professional development. In the beginning, I certainly took more from that relationship than I gave. Contrast that with my involvement with the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD). In 2011, I applied for a leadership position with the YLD for which I would join The Affiliate, which was then a print publication distributed to the YLD’s 300+ affiliates across the country. The following year I was appointed as Editor of the Publication. During a leadership meeting in Annapolis, I bumped into David Nguyen, then Director of the YLD’s Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program. He stated that my background in legal aid would make me a good fit for the DLS team. I started in 2014 as a DLS team member and then was appointed DLS Director in 2015. From 2015 to 2018, I led the DLS program through some of the nation’s most significant disaster events – the historic flooding in Baton Rouge in 2016, Hurricanes Harvey, Marie, and Irma in 2017, and then Hurricane Michael and the California Wildfires in 2018. Peppered in with those major events were other major but less publicized events – an earthquake in Alaska, flooding across the plains, and typhoons in Guam, to name a few. For all that I took from the Tax Section in the early days of my career, I hope I gave back more in my contributions to these programs. These experiences also enriched my life in ways that are difficult to explain. I can’t imagine what my career would look like without this involvement.

Q: Tell us some more about your work in the disaster relief area.

A: The DLS program is the longest running public service YLD program. It began in 1972, several years after attorneys in Mississippi created a mobile legal clinic for survivors of Hurricane Camille, which at the time was only the second Category 5 hurricane to hit the United States. From there, a national program was created and adopted by the YLD. The program provides free legal assistance to disaster survivors with insufficient means to hire an attorney. My role as Director is to be a project manager and work with my team to be a connector and accelerator between the local volunteer efforts and the national resources. You can learn more about the 50-year history of the program in an article I wrote in the Touro Law Review a few years back. There are some great first-hand accounts from program volunteers, and you will notice a common theme among the lawyers mentioned in the article, as they all stated that their pro bono work in this program was some of the most important work of their legal career.

Although my work was mostly limited to oversight of the program, the frontline volunteers handle a variety of legal issues, such as resolving issues with insurance companies, landlords, contractors, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other agencies, as well as helping survivors clear title to their homes, replace vital documents, and create important documents such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

My work in the program is by far the highlight of my career. It’s provided me with opportunities to engage with and address challenges in the field of disaster law. Although we are sometimes adversarial to FEMA, we have a good working relationship with the agency and there is a lot of mutual respect when it comes to our own respective missions. I had the opportunity to engage with lawyers across the country, even in the territories such as Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I’ve written extensively about the program and ways to be more resilient, most recently in two ABA publications: Meeting the Needs of Disaster Survivors: Third Responders and the Community Resilience Handbook. Although I aged out of the YLD this year, I am still a special advisor to the program, and I currently chair the ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. We’re always looking for pro bono volunteers to take cases, young lawyer or not, and if this is something of interest to any of the readers, I would encourage you to reach out to my friend and colleague Linda Anderson Stanley, who currently runs the program.

Q: What advice would you give young lawyers in the private sector who are looking to become more involved in pro bono?

A: As attorneys, we should all resolve to provide pro bono assistance to those with limited means, and we can look to ABA Model Rule 6.1 for a similar charge: “[a] lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.” When talking about pro bono to my peers, I sometimes get the response “I just don’t have time to help” as if the people who are doing pro bono work are sitting around with nothing better to do with their time. I would encourage attorneys to resist the easy excuse that you are “too busy” and suggest that “pro bono” does not necessarily mean extended representation of a client. For example, I have friends who work in a very specialized area of law that has limited applicability to pro bono work. Instead of taking on unfamiliar areas and risking harm to the potential client, they make a financial contribution. Others provide technical assistance to non-profits and legal aid organizations, or help in other ways that differ from the traditional way of taking on individual cases.

However, for those who are looking to take on individual cases pro bono, a good place to start is within your own professional associations, such as the ABA Tax Section, state and local bar associations, or your local legal aid providers. If you are going to commit to doing pro bono work, be realistic with your ability to volunteer. While working in the disaster field, I often saw people who felt compelled to volunteer immediately after a large disaster but did not follow through when the rubber met the road. Organizations spend lots of time recruiting pro bono volunteers and providing oversight. The best thing you can do in return is to stay on top of the cases and treat it no differently than having a paying client.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your work at TAS and what you do on a day-to-day basis.

A: I think the audience is familiar with TAS, but for those who don’t know, TAS was established as part of the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 as an independent agency within the IRS. Simply stated, we get involved when the normal process breaks down, or when there is an emergency that requires quick action. Each day can be very different when it comes to running the Chicago office. Most of my duties are directly related to the oversight of casework, which means working with my staff and other functions within the IRS to resolve cases. However, outreach plays a role in my job as well. I frequently work with our area LITCs and have ongoing dialogue with our congressional offices. I also am engaged with our practitioner community to discuss matters of interest and identify systemic issues.

The past few years have been especially challenging given the continuing funding and staffing shortages across the entire agency. COVID-19 only worsened the issues we saw pertaining to staffing and funding, and I think it will be a long time before we get back to “normal.” Not to sound cynical, but I would say that normal is a very subjective term, because things were not really “normal” even before COVID. It will be interesting to see what the IRS looks like as we come out of COVID and usher in IRS Next, formerly known as the Taxpayer First Act, formerly known as something else, probably. Regardless, I will say that I am grateful for the team I have in the Chicago office, who have risen to the plentiful challenges of just getting the work done despite the ongoing challenges that existed before COVID-19 and the new ones during the pandemic. I am very proud of their commitment and resilience.

Q: You’ve been at TAS for a few year now. How was the transition from serving low-income taxpayers at PSLS to serving all taxpayers at TAS?

A: When I worked for PSLS, it was a relatively small program (myself, another attorney, and a pro rata support staff). Aside from the normal oversight from the organization, I was in s driver’s seat and made many decisions that impacted the clinic. Further, I spent most of my time providing direct services to taxpayers. Contrast this with my time in government, where I am now in more of a managerial role. My direct casework is somewhat limited, although the cases I take on usually involve Taxpayer Assistance Orders (TAOs). I am now a small fish in a very large pond. I believe the LTA position is the best job in TAS, and I enjoy the challenge it brings. And if any readers are interested in a career at TAS, we are hiring, and I would be happy to share my experience with anyone who wants to learn more about the organization.

Q: You and I have worked on several matters, both when you were at PSLS and during your current post at TAS, including a situation where you were able to assist me and my large corporate client on a potentially disastrous issue that arose a couple of days before Christmas. A common misconception about TAS is that it is only for low-income taxpayers. What has been your experience working on larger matters?

A: There is no case too large or too small for TAS. Whether you are a single parent needing assistance with an earned income tax credit exam or a global firm with complicated and intertwined account issues, TAS can help (provided the issue in the matter meets acceptance criteria). We treat each taxpayer the same, and work cases very similarly in terms of how and when we communicate. I have heard of, but never understood, the sentiment from the practitioner community that going to TAS was an admission of one’s own professional limitation or that TAS is a place for poor people to get help. I have worked on cases that would have never gotten resolved had they not gone to TAS. My advice to practitioners is not to think of TAS as a place for poor or unrepresented taxpayers, but rather as another tool in the toolbelt to get your client’s issues resolved.

Q: What kinds of activities do you enjoy when you are not assisting taxpayers?

A: I’m an outdoorsy person. I’m trying to visit all 63 (and counting) National Parks and I’m probably two thirds of the way through. I spend time locally volunteering with the Chicago English Bulldog Rescue, and I’m getting back into a saltwater aquarium hobby. I recently got into collecting Funko Pops. My favorites are my Hulk and Bruce Banner figures—I place one of them on my desk, depending on how my day is going. By the time this is in print, you will certainly see a grin on my face, as my student loans will have recently been discharged. In December, I completed my 10 years of public service under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and my student loan balance—which is large (whatever number you think it is, its higher)—was forgiven. That’s another benefit of doing pro bono and working in public service. Maybe I should have opened with that? 

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.