Manoj Viswanathan & Alina Ball on Creating a Transactional Tax Clinic

Published on: Author: Heather Field

Law school clinics have long served students interested in litigation. And the past decade has brought a dramatic increase in the number of transactional-law clinics at law schools across the country, which is clearly a positive development for the many law students who are interested in business/transactional work. But what about students interested in transactional tax? These students remain woefully underserved by clinical offerings. This is true even though clients of the transactional clinics often have tax needs and even though there is student demand for business-tax-focused experiential opportunities.

In response, my colleagues, Professor Manoj Viswanathan and Professor Alina Ball, created the UC Hastings Business Tax Practicum for Social Enterprise (the “Practicum”). The Practicum is an experiential live-client course in which students work exclusively on transactional-tax matters and do so alongside members of the UC Hastings Social Enterprise & Economic Empowerment Clinic in order to integrate both business-tax and corporate-law expertise when providing holistic transactional representation. Practicum students have provided advice on a wide range of business-tax issues, including the sales-tax practices of a tax-exempt social-business incubator, the value of charitable deductions for customers of a for-profit food-recovery business, and the structuring/choice of entity decisions for a tax-exempt provider of employment skills/training that has significant revenue-generation activities. In doing so, students learn not only black-letter law associated with the taxation of social enterprises, but they also learn problem-solving skills and critical-thinking skills in the context of transactional-tax matters. Students also learn other valuable skills, including how to work effectively with colleagues across different areas of specialization in order to meet client needs.

Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball share their curricular innovation in “From Business Tax Theory to Practice,” published in Clinical Law Review in 2017. The article discusses their experiences with, and their insights gleaned from, their development of the Practicum. As a result, Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball make several valuable contributions to law schools and law students across the country. First, they demonstrate that law schools can provide transactional-tax students with clinical opportunities. These students do not need to be relegated to non-tax clinics where they build transferrable skills. Those are valuable opportunities too, but business-tax students can be served directly by law school clinics. Second, Viswanathan and Ball make the case that schools should invest in building clinical opportunities in tax (and in other underserved transactional fields), and they explain how to do so. It is not easy to create a program like the Practicum, but Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball are candid about the benefits and the challenges. And they provide valuable insights into how to maximize the benefits and overcome the challenges. As a result, the article provides a template that other law schools can use when creating experiential opportunities for their transactional-tax students. Third, Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball illustrate that transactional practices and social justice can be integrated effectively. Too often, we think about business tax and access to justice as unrelated—part of completely separate spheres of law practice. But the Practicum shows how it is possible to teach business-tax lawyering skills while simultaneously increasing access to justice for underserved clients. Moreover, Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball’s article advances the discussion within the profession about how even transactional-tax lawyers’ work can further social justice.

As an advisor for the UC Hastings Tax Concentration, I am particularly delighted that my students have had the opportunity to participate in the Practicum because it has taught them how to put into practice the substantive knowledge they gain throughout the rest of the tax curriculum. Plus, the Practicum has helped our students to be as ready as possible for post-grad transactional-tax law careers. But such opportunities should not be limited to the students of one institution. Transactional-tax-interested students across the country need these opportunities too, so I hope that other law schools will follow Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball’s lead and create programs similar to the Practicum. When they do, Professor Viswanathan and Professor Ball’s article will be a critically important resource.