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When the taxman comes, Texans can find help at Texas Tech University School of Law. The school is using a federal grant to operate a tax clinic that serves low-income and non-English speaking taxpayers who have been audited and are facing trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Third-year law students under the supervision of attorneys staff the clinic. “This is not filling out tax returns,” Marilyn Phelan, a professor of law at Texas Tech, said. “These are people who have been audited by the IRS and have no idea what to do.” Many of the clients will be taxpayers with IRS liens on their property, she said. Texas Tech is the second law school to open a tax clinic; Southern Methodist University School of Law opened one in January 1977. Texas Tech received an $84,000 startup grant under a section of the Tax Code approved two years ago by Congress and has applied for another $100,000 to operate the clinic for three years. Texas Tech was the only law school in the state to obtain the grant. Under the grant guidelines, 90 percent of the cases must involve taxpayers who earn no more than 250 percent of poverty-level income. That’s $20,875 a year for a single person, $28,124 for two people and $46,626 for a family of four. Clients will pay a one-time fee of $25 for the services and a $65 court-filing fee. Those fees can be waived if a client is indigent. A class on tax representation was held this summer at Texas Tech, and the clinic opened for business on Sept. 1. Phelan and Don Williams, a Levelland tax attorney and former tax collector for the IRS, supervise the clinic and screen cases before passing them on to one of the 10 students working there. The students will go to U.S. Tax Court with their clients to resolve the problems or try to negotiate with the IRS, Phelan says. Members of the tax court have agreed to hold hearings in Lubbock, Texas, she adds. The clinic will serve clients living as far south as El Paso, Texas, and in eastern New Mexico. Some of the money will be used for travel, but initially most cases will be handled in Lubbock or by telephone, Phelan says. “The purpose of the federal government giving this money is to benefit both taxpayers who are just lost and to benefit students, who get hands-on experience,” she says. Williams says the clinic has seven clients now but plans to handle up to 100 at any given time. The tax court is sending fliers to taxpayers representing themselves to let them know about the clinic, he says. Williams, who spent about 25 years with the IRS before going into private practice in 1995, will accompany the students to court. The cases so far involve issues such as earned income credit, employee-employer relationship and double assessment on payroll taxes, he says. He predicts each case will take 20 to 40 hours to resolve, depending on the issues involved. There’s already a waiting list of law students who want to participate in the clinic, Williams says. “It looks like it’ll be a lot of fun for the students,” he says. “They seem to be enjoying learning the nuts and bolts of tax work. They’re innovative, and they’re sharp.” In Dallas, the Southern Methodist University tax clinic also gives law students the experience of handling actual cases. Each semester, about 10 students represent individuals and corporations who have disputes with the IRS, according to Larry Jones, a tax attorney and clinic director. The clients are selected based on financial need and the issues involved. The clinic averages about 45 cases per semester, and the students work 12 hours a week for 14 weeks, says Jones, a partner in Townsend & Jones, which has offices in Dallas and Houston.

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