In a pivotal scene in the movie On The Basis Of Sex, Judge Doyle, portrayed by Gary Werntz, advises, “The word “woman” does not appear even once in the U.S. Constitution.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, coolly responds, “Nor does the world “freedom,” Your Honor.”
That exchange is from the very real case of Moritz v. Commissioner. In Moritz, a single, never-married man attempted to claim a $600 dependent care deduction for the care of his mother. The problem? The deduction wasn’t available to a single man who had never married. The Tax Court denied his petition, and it was eventually brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Marty Ginsburg. The Ginsburgs successfully argued that the then-existing statute was discriminatory. You might have already known that. But you might not have known that Ruth and Marty took the case as a pro bono matter (with the support of the ACLU).
In fact, every year, tax and legal professionals across the country take on cases pro bono. While not all of them make it onto the big screen, many leave a big impression. Pro bono representation has resulted in significant gains related to marriage equality (Obergefell v. Hodges), securing voting rights, and obtaining assistance for victims of 9/11.
That’s why, each October, lawyers, paralegals, and law students celebrate Pro Bono Week. This year, Pro Bono Week runs Oct. 22-28.
The term “pro bono” is a short form of “pro bono publico”—a Latin phrase that translates to “for the public good.” In the context of legal and related services, it has come to be associated with the idea of allowing all people equal access to justice, including those who may not be able to afford it.
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service created Pro Bono Week in 2009 to celebrate the pro bono work that volunteer lawyers and legal professionals do. The event began because of the increasing need for pro bono services and was inspired by the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Annual Pro Bono Week, which started in 2005.
Today, the event is used to spur greater participation in pro bono services—but it’s not just restricted to the legal profession. This week, the National Taxpayer Advocate, Erin Collins, a tax attorney who previously represented several clients pro bono to help them resolve issues with the IRS, used her blog to “recognize the immense significance of pro bono assistance that Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) and their volunteers provide to low-income and English as a second language (ESL) taxpayers in our communities.” Collins noted that in the last grant year, over 1,100 volunteers provided nearly 34,000 hours of volunteer time to LITCs.
Collins noted, “Particularly where there is a lack of equal access to legal and tax-related assistance, pro bono volunteer work stands as a beacon of hope, ensuring that the rights embodied in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights are upheld and essential services are accessible to all, regardless of their financial status, age, or other factors.”
Additional Ways To Help
In recent years, tax professionals have provided assistance working with individuals and non-profits to ensure that Covid-related relief, like stimulus checks, was delivered to those who might not be traditional tax filers. Tax professionals have also rallied to help those impacted by disasters, including providing tax advice, accessing tax records, and helping to file tax returns to claim certain benefits. In a number of states, including Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and my own state of Pennsylvania, some continuing education credits may be fulfilled by pro bono work.
CPA and state bar associations also offer volunteer opportunities through Filing for Freedom to assist in preparing tax returns for military personnel. Filing for Freedom has prepared returns at Dobbins Airforce Base in Georgia for several years and recently began offering virtual tax preparation services.
The American Bar Association Section of Tax has publicized several ways that those in the legal profession can help, including the Inmate Tax Assistance Project, which helps assist formerly and currently incarcerated people in resolving tax issues.
The ABA Section of Tax has also partnered with the IRS to host virtual settlement weeks, where attorneys are paired with taxpayers to settle cases before trial whenever possible. The next virtual settlement week will be held Nov. 7-9, 2023—the deadline to sign up is Oct. 27, 2023, at 11:59 pm ET. According to the ABA, this is an excellent opportunity for someone who would like to take cases from an organization like a local LITC, but is looking for some mentorship.
Pro bono opportunities can also be found at the local level. For example, Legal Aid of Southeastern PA helps Chester County mobile home owners appeal their tax assessments. Their work was previously featured in a June 2023 Forbes article.
It’s worth noting that an organization doesn’t have to be tax-focused to offer opportunities to assist taxpayers. Some organizations—like the Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia—provide an array of services and can often use help. If you’re not sure, just ask.
The U.S. Tax Court advises that “tax clinics and Bar sponsored calendar call programs provide important advice and assistance to many low income, self represented taxpayers who have disputes” with the IRS. That’s especially noteworthy since a 2015 paper highlighted that approximately 70% of all petitions filed with the Tax Court are brought by taxpayers who represent themselves. Additionally, about 62% of the taxpayers who represented themselves before the Tax Court, the United States Court of Federal Claims, and the district courts in 2014 litigated one of the top ten most litigated issues in tax proceedings.
While the Tax Court does not endorse any specific programs, it does provide a link to a list of participating clinics—which are not part of the IRS or the Tax Court—complete with geographical location and contact information.
The Department of Justice also celebrates Pro Bono Week, which they describe as “a week of events and volunteer opportunities to celebrate and promote pro bono work for federal government attorneys and legal staff.” Related events generally include panel discussions, trainings, pro bono fairs, and either a keynote address or an event with the judiciary.
Of course, you don’t have to be a tax professional to make a difference for taxpayers. For over 50 years, the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) (and later, Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)) programs have offered free basic tax return preparation to qualified individuals.
Before the pandemic, in fiscal year 2019, 3.55 million federal tax returns were prepared at the IRS’s VITA and TCE sites. That represented an astounding 2.3% of total individual income tax returns filed.
VITA/TCE sites are operated by IRS partners and staffed by volunteers—training is provided. You don’t have to have tax experience, though many of the volunteers have some interest in tax, accounting, or finance (as a former VITA volunteer at the senior center in my neighborhood, my supervisor was a former engineer, and I can honestly say that participation in the program was a highlight of the tax season). For additional information and next steps, click over to the VITA/TCE Volunteer and Partner Sign Up.
In a 1999 speech at the University of Oregon, another former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted, “Certainly, life as a lawyer is a bit more complex today than it was a century ago. The ever-increasing pressures of the legal marketplace, the need to bill hours, to market to clients, and to attend to the bottom line, have made fulfilling the responsibilities of community service quite difficult.”
“But,” she said, “public service marks the difference between a business and a profession. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot. It must devote itself first to the community it is responsible to serve. I can imagine no greater duty than fulfilling this obligation. And I can imagine no greater pleasure.”