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Pro Bono Settlement Day: Give Back to Your Community and Gain Litigation Skills

Jennifer Breen

Pro Bono Settlement Day: Give Back to Your Community and Gain Litigation Skills

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It is a Monday morning in Washington, DC, and a group of individuals has gathered for the US Tax Court’s calendar call. In addition to the taxpayers whose cases will be called this morning, attorneys from the IRS Office of Chief Counsel, professors, and students from local law school clinic programs, and my partner, Sheri Dillon, and I are milling outside the courtroom. Sheri and I are here as codirectors of the DC Center for Public Interest Tax Law, a nonprofit organization that matches low-income taxpayers in need of representation with lawyers who will take their cases pro bono. Calendar call is an important part of what we do to serve the taxpayers in Washington, DC. Although these unrepresented taxpayers previously received information about local clinics, many never contacted the clinics. So here we are, with other clinics, available to help in the minutes before the session begins.

What Is a “Pro Bono Settlement Day”?

Often these taxpayers have meritorious cases that are not ready for trial. The Tax Court frequently grants continuances so that a clinic can try to work with these taxpayers. While these continuances are appreciated, they cause an unnecessary delay in the judicial process. In these situations, it is impossible not to leave the Tax Court thinking, if only we could have met with these petitioners sooner. After sharing our concerns and frustrations with colleagues and the Office of Chief Counsel, we learned that we were not alone. This is a common problem for clinicians: How do we reach self-represented, low-income taxpayers early enough in the process to assist them better?

Conversations with other clinicians produced a potential answer to that question: a “Pro Bono Settlement Day” in Washington, DC. Settlement Days have been held across the United States with varying degrees of success. These events can help parties arrive at settlement earlier in the process, educate self-represented taxpayers who do not settle earlier about what to expect at calendar call and trial, preserve the resources of the parties and the Tax Court, and facilitate opportunities for these taxpayers to meet with pro bono counsel much earlier in the process. This proactive planning helps avoid the confusion and stress of hallway consultations the morning of calendar call. 

On Saturday, December 1, 2018, the first Pro Bono Settlement Day in Washington, DC, was held. Taxpayers in 13 docketed cases attended that morning and the vast majority of these cases settled that day. The following organizations contributed to the Pro Bono Settlement Day: the Janet R. Spragens Federal Tax Clinic from American University Washington College of Law, Legal Services of Northern Virginia, the D.C. Center for Public Interest Tax Law, the Washington, DC, Chief Counsel field office, and executives within the Chief Counsel’s National Office. By everyone’s account, our first Settlement Day was a success.

In 2018, approximately 16 Settlement Days were held in cities across the country, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, and New York. Since then, the ABA Section of Taxation 
Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee
, in collaboration with the Office of Chief Counsel, began efforts to hold Settlement Day events in cities across the country.

How Can You Get Involved or Learn More?

The ABA Section of Taxation and the Office of Chief Counsel are currently working together to organize and promote local Settlement Day events. The Section of Taxation is developing training programs and tool kits to help volunteers better serve taxpayers at a Settlement Day. The Section also is brainstorming best practices for how to generate interest and participation by taxpayers in the community. If you want to assist with the development of training programs and tool kits or help organize or serve at a local Settlement Day, the Section of Taxation Pro Bono and Tax Clinics Committee welcomes all help and support. Participating in a local Settlement Day is a great way for a new attorney to give back to the community while gaining important litigation skills. Learn more or get involved