For the last two years, we’ve wondered when the time would be right to bring people together again. For our Midyear meeting, we agonized over the decision and ultimately decided to maintain the virtual format. For our May 2022 meeting, however, we decided to take the plunge.
The Hybrid May Tax Meeting
Our 2022 May Tax Meeting was held in DC at the Marriot Marquis from May 12–14. By all accounts, it was a great success. It’s the first time in decades that the May Tax Meeting was held in a new hotel—and the first time in recent memory that it didn’t fall on Mother’s Day weekend! Also, for the first time, the meeting was hybrid (meaning that a good portion of the content was live-streamed and recorded and allowed participants to attend virtually).
In some ways, it’s hard to believe that it’s been almost three years since we held our last in-person May meeting. In the meantime, the Tax Section staff did an amazing job replicating our in-person meetings—and even improved upon them with special features unique to the virtual format. But our time apart also made us appreciate the important aspects of in-person meetings that simply cannot be replicated, like the strong sense of community that comes with seeing old friends, and the chance encounters that lead to making new friends and allies.
Although we decided to give members the option of meeting again in-person, we also realized that everyone’s circumstances are different, and that not everyone would feel comfortable attending an in-person meeting. In addition, we were mindful of the fact that the Section’s virtual meetings attracted new, younger and more diverse attendees. So, while the sheer number of panels at the May meeting made it impossible to live-stream everything, we made every effort to live-stream as much content as possible for a virtual audience. This meant that committee meetings were a wonderful resource for those able to travel to the meeting, and in large part available for those who could not.
The May plenary session featured an eye-opening Roundtable, co-organized by the American Tax Policy Institute, entitled Tax Data Transparency: Changes Coming to a Post-Pandemic Tax Code?, which provided insight into the tax policy implications of greater tax data transparency. Caroline Bruckner, Managing Director, Kogod Tax Policy Center, Kogod School of Business, American University, moderated the Roundtable. Other participants included Steve Dean, Brooklyn Law School professor and co-director of the Dennis J. Block Center for the Study of International Business Law; Mark Mazur, former Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, former Robert C. Pozen director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a vice president at the Urban Institute; and Danny Yagan, Chief Economist at the Office of Management and Budget and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Another highlight of the May meeting was the May 14 plenary presentation of awards to two women who have contributed immeasurably to the tax profession. Karen Hawkins received the highest honor the Tax Section bestows, the 2022 Distinguished Service Award. As all of us who have worked with Karen are aware, she is a true force of nature who has brought her vision, commitment and indefatigable energy to improving the tax system and the tax profession. As the People in Tax article demonstrates, she is the embodiment of the qualities that the Distinguished Service Award was designed to honor. In Karen’s acceptance speech she exhibited the grace, courage and conviction that have defined her career. Karen gave her eloquent voice to an issue that has troubled so many of us in recent weeks. She described the fear and disappointment she felt reading Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked opinion, which reflects a shockingly hostile attitude towards women. She noted that the draft opinion cites Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century misogynist (credited, among other things, with the notion that husbands can’t be prosecuted for raping their wives) who sentenced women to death as “witches.” In a moving conclusion, Karen explained that before becoming anyone’s property, she will be “the last witch standing.” Karen inspired many of us to realize that we need to be standing with her. Karen Lapekas, another remarkable tax professional, received the Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award. Karen previously served as a senior attorney in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel and as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney at the Department of Justice. She now runs her own law firm, Lapekas Law, and teaches a course on Federal Tax Practice & Procedure at the Miami School of Law. As noted in the Pro Bono Matters article, her pro bono work is extensive, including participating in every U.S. Tax Court Settlement Day since the program’s 2016 inception. Karen Lapekas spoke passionately about the rewards of pro bono service and the importance of allowing the under-represented to be seen and heard. For different reasons, the presentations of both Karens brought us to tears.
Another highlight of the May meeting was a special presentation by Tax Analysts entitled Inflation: The Role of Tax Policy. Moderated by Cara Griffith, President and CEO of Tax Analysts, the panel featured Hana Greenberg, Vice President Tax of the Retail Industry Leaders Association; Marty Sullivan, Chief Economist and Contributing Editor at Tax Analysts; Andrew Grossman, Chief Tax Counsel of the Committee on Ways and Means; and Jeffrey Wrase, Deputy Staff Director and Chief Economist of the Senate Finance Committee.
Our many occasions for networking provided opportunities for surprise guests to address our members. We were delighted to hear from IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig at the Section’s Welcome Reception and from ABA President-Elect Deborah Enix-Ross at the Section’s Council Reception.
The Tax Section staff are always amazing but the teamwork and dedication that they exhibited in pulling together the May meeting were unparalleled. Each member of the staff worked tirelessly, day after extremely long day, for weeks leading up to the meeting. Seeing them pull together, always in the same direction, pitching in wherever needed, was nothing short of inspirational.
Thank you to those who were able to attend the May meeting to celebrate the return to in-person meetings and the opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.
The Midyear Meeting
Since we are putting out a combined winter-spring issue of ATT, it is worth mentioning the highlights of the Midyear Meeting as well. Although we all missed that sense of community that comes with our in-person meetings, the Section concluded that it was best to hold the January meeting virtually because of the COVID surge in Florida. Thanks to the Section’s wonderful staff and our amazing committees, it was another awesome virtual meeting between January 31 and February 4. There were more than 100 substantive programs with star-studded panels of tax professionals, academics and government officials on a wide range of topics. Thanks to our committees and groups like the Women in Tax Forum, the Section also hosted more virtual networking events than ever.
Our featured speaker for the Midyear plenary session was William G. Gale, the Arjay and Frances Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy in the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. He is co-founder and co-director of The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of Brookings and the Urban Institute. Mr. Gale is also the author of Fiscal Therapy: Curing America’s Addiction to Debt and Investing in the Future (Oxford University Press, 2019) and many other publications. His remarks centered on his work in the area of race and racism in public finance and economics. Although public finance research (an area fundamental to tax policy) has largely ignored issues of racial equality, Mr. Gale noted that using new race-neutral policies to cement historically unjust and inequitable notions is not progress. There are, however, both challenges and opportunities at the intersection of racism and tax policy. The challenges include incorporating “new language, perspectives, criteria, and approaches,” while the opportunities include the possibility to draw on familiar frameworks to analyze issues crucial to society. In recent years, there has been a wide-spread call to end the legacy of systematic inequality and racism that undermines nearly every aspect of our society and its institutions. It was heartening to hear someone of Mr. Gale’s stature call on public finance economists to do the same.
Our Midyear plenary session also featured a cameo appearance by Loretta Collins Argrett, one of the most distinguished women in the legal profession and a true trailblazer as the first African American woman serving as staff on the Joint Committee on Taxation and the first African American woman in Justice Department history to hold a position that required SenateShe also has been a tenured professor at Howard Law School and an adjunct professor at both Georgetown and American University Law Schools. Ms. Argrett spoke about creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive Tax Section and tax bar. Ms. Argrett has generously lent her name and her time to the Tax Section’s newly-launched fellowship program (described below).
The Law Student Tax Challenge
The 21st Annual Law Student Tax Challenge (LSTC), organized by the Tax Section’s Young Lawyers Forum, was held virtually on January 12th and 13th, 2022 before a panel of distinguished tax lawyers and tax court judges. It is a transactional planning and client counseling competition for which two-person teams of J.D. and LL.M. students from law schools around the country solve a complex business problem that might arise in everyday tax practice. First Place for the J.D. Division went to Holden Branscum and William Gebo of University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law (coached by William Kratzke). First place in the LL.M. Division went to Adnan Alam and Melia Mbanefo of Temple University Beasley School of Law (coached by Andrew Weiner). Best Written Submission awards went to Max Cargal-Bley and Han Shen of the University of Washington School of Law for the J.D. Division (and they were also awarded 2nd place in that division) and to Otto Bosch and Micah Moore of the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law for the LL.M. Division. I will just note that the problems these students addressed so successfully struck me as extremely difficult. All of the teams were spectacular.
Pro Bono & Public Service
As the largest voluntary bar association of tax lawyers and the national voice of the tax bar, the Tax Section has the opportunity and the duty to act as a central resource to pro bono and public service tax practitioners throughout the country. The pressures of the pandemic on under-resourced populations, the expanded role of the tax system in providing economic relief and the inability of underfunded taxing agencies to bridge the gap has emphasized the importance of this work.
The Tax Section now has a variety of in-person and digital offerings to support practitioners serving low-income and other underserved population. The Section’s website includes numerous resources, including access to an archive of free webinar recordings at Pro Bono Webinars (americanbar.org) and slides from the Section’s previous pro bono offerings. Recently, the Tax Section collaborated with the Center for Taxpayer Rights to present a two-part series entitled Representing Domestic Violence Survivors in IRS Disputes, which included discussions of the complex issues that arise in such cases, including issues related to joint tax liability for spouses and inability to access shared financial records.
The Tax Section had a very successful season with a hybrid version of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance/Adopt-A-Base program. Through the Adopt-A-Base program, the Tax Section collaborates with the military and the IRS to help train service members to become volunteer return preparers through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. This program helps military service members and their families throughout the country. In connection with this effort, the Section published an updated version of the Military State Tax Guide, which compiles state income tax issues relevant to members of the military.
The May meeting included a number of events and presentations focused on the Section’s pro bono and public service community. The Low-Income Taxpayer Representation Workshop was held on the first day of the meeting and included an informative discussion with past and present recipients of the Christine Brunswick Fellowship (which sponsors up to two recent law graduates for two-year term projects working with non-profit organizations on tax public service issues). On the panel were Omeed Firouzi, Philadelphia Legal Services; Lany Villalobos, Kirkland & Ellis; Shailana Dunn-Wall, Legal Aid of Nebraska; Terri Morris, Community Tax Law Project; and Nirali Patel, Greater Boston Legal Services. The workshop included an interactive session focused on rebuilding in-person collaboration and community. The theme of the Section reception that evening was “Celebrating Pro Bono.”
These pro bono and fellowship activities are especially important to the future of the Tax Section. We hope that members will support the Section’s commitment to advancing equal tax representation for low-income and other under-served populations by volunteering their time or donating to the TAPS endowment fund to support the Brunswick Fellowship program.
Justice, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
The Loretta Collins Argrett Fellowship is designed to provide an accessible and equitable pipeline into the Tax Section and the tax bar by identifying and supporting historically underrepresented individuals in becoming active members and future leaders of the Section. The program awards up to five fellowships annually, each with a term of up to three-years. Argrett Fellows do not pay membership dues for either the ABA or the Tax Section and are able to attend the Tax Section’s Fall, Midyear and May meetings at minimal cost, with waivers of registration and ticket fees for meetings, receptions and lunches and reimbursement for reasonable travel and accommodation expenses. Each fellow is assigned two Section mentors and is invited to monthly virtual meetings with Section leaders and special guests. The next application period for Argrett Fellowships will open in March 2023. In connection with the inaugural program launched in March, the Section received nearly one hundred applications and responded by expanding the initial fellowship program to award eight fellowships. The Tax Section is now seeking Section members interested in serving as mentors to this cohort of Argrett Fellows. In addition, the Section hopes to extend certain non-financial aspects of the fellowship, such as mentorship, to many of the amazing applicants that we were not able to select as Argrett Fellows. If you are interested in serving as a mentor, please download, fill out, and return the mentor application to [email protected] by the 5:00 pm ET deadline of Monday, June 6.