Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program allows students a chance to gain legal skills through real-world experiences

Ian Ambler portrait photographFor many students, choosing a law school with unique clinical training opportunities is essential so students can gain on-the-job experience before they graduate.

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law student Ian Ambler  took advantage of the chance to learn new legal skills and help clients through a placement in the law school’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program this year. Clinics include a classroom component, and offer a forum for students to reflect on their experiences. Clinical placements help students to develop a range of practice-related skills and to gain insights into their strengths and career preferences.

The Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program is a matching grant program from the Internal Revenue Service that provides federal funds to organizations so they in turn can provide services to taxpayers who are low income or who speak English as a second language. The University of Utah in 2016 joined the list of several clinics across the country who help clients in need through providing:

  • Representation for individuals in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service, including audits, appeals, collection matters, and federal tax litigation. The clinic can also help taxpayers respond to IRS notices and correct account problems.
  • Education about taxpayer rights and responsibilities.
  • Advocacy on behalf of low income and ESL taxpayers.

Services are free or low cost for eligible taxpayers. Each clinic determines whether prospective clients meet income guidelines and other criteria before agreeing to represent them.

Ambler discussed his experiences participating in the clinic in a recent Q&A.

Q: Why did you want to go to law school? 

A: I grew up in the Seattle area, but spent the years before coming to law school in the U.S. Navy. Once I separated from the military, I was looking for another challenge that would provide me with some fulfillment. Specifically, I was looking for something that I could get passionate about while at the same time allowed me to provide some type of public service. Growing up, I had never even considered going into law, and it was the furthest thing from my mind when I received an (undergraduate) degree in civil engineering. But a civil engineering degree served me well, affording me a chance to do some incredible projects in the navy. It also allowed me to zone in on what I liked about engineering: solving complex problems. Once I truly gave the idea of law school a chance, I saw that it would be able to tick off all those vital boxes I was looking for: passion, service, and problem solving.

The primary reason I chose to come to Utah for law school has to be the location. The geography is amazing. The other factor was the size of the school and the professors. I loved the smaller school environment, and when I visited, the professors were clearly available to students and engaging. Lastly, what put Utah over the edge was the building. I’m an engineer! What is not to love about this building?

Q: Tell us about your experience in the Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC). What has the experience brought to your legal education?

A: The Low Income Tax Clinic (LITC) has really allowed me to jump right in and take on responsibility from the start. In the clinic I was able to open cases with new clients with intake interviews, and then manage them to resolution. In the clinic, Professor Hinckley encouraged me to take the lead, communicating with the clients and determining the legal arguments best attuned to the evidence. It has really allowed me to gain experience running multiple cases at a time, and communicating with the IRS on behalf of my clients, either in writing or by phone. I have had a variety of cases arising from controversies with the IRS from audits and exams, to petitions to tax court. Issues I have worked on have ranged from disputed claims children, innocent spouse defenses, and identity theft.

Q: Were there any specific cases or clients that left you with a lasting impact? Did you feel like you got a chance to make a difference?

A: I had a client who had received a notice from the IRS telling her they had disallowed a credit she had claimed, asking her to pay a large sum back to the government. She had sat on the letter, not knowing what to do since she really believed she was entitled to the credit. She finally reached out to the LITC, and came in to meet. When she sat down, she broke down crying, wondering how she was going to afford to pay. Fortunately, it appeared to be a simple submission of documents showing she was entitled to the credit. I was able to take care of the issue right there in the first meeting, ending a stress that had kept her from sleeping. It was definitely gratifying to have a person truly thankful for your assistance. And once the IRS got back to a couple months later telling use they had accepted the documents and had significantly revised how much she owed, I was able to watch the weight leave her shoulders. For that case, it wasn’t a complex issue, but it was definitely something that made me feel like I was providing a service truly needed.

Q: How do you think this experience has prepared you for your career after graduation?

A: Putting in the time and effort to run cases and clients has gotten me more comfortable in working with a range of clients. It has shown me an entire field where providing a little bit of guidance or some representation can make a major difference in someone’s life. That impact has validated my decision to come to law school.