The worst has happened. That awful dreaded moment has come when you realize there is no escape. Nobody has died—but you are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. What happens next? Michelle Drumbl knows.
Professor Drumbl is the head of the W&L Tax Clinic. In the last four years, the clinic has helped nearly 150 clients navigate the treacherous paths of audits and other tax problems. On a wide range of issues that sometimes involves litigating in the U.S. Tax Court, Professor Drumbl and her students have brought relief and resolution to these taxpayers, some of whom were previously so overwhelmed with their tax woes that they burned rather than opened the letters they received from the IRS.
Professor Drumbl began her life in the law as a student at George Washington University Law School. She found herself drawn to the tax law classes, because of their “statutory nature and the way the puzzle all fits together.” After law school she practiced tax and estate planning law for two years prior to earning her LL.M. in Taxation at New York University. Following graduation in 2002, she accepted a job with the Office of Chief Counsel at the IRS, where she was an attorney in the International division of the National Office in Washington DC. While working there, she provided advisory opinions on the interpretation of bilateral income tax treaties and was the principal author of several private letter rulings and public guidance items issued on international tax matters.
While still with the IRS she began to moonlight as an adjunct professor at W&L. In 2007, when she was offered the opportunity to set up the Tax Clinic, she gladly accepted the challenge.
The Tax Clinic, part of a nationwide grant program overseen by the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service, offers eligible taxpayers free legal representation before the IRS on matters such as: audits, non-filing, innocent spouse claims and other similar issues. Any Virginian with a household income under 250% of the federal poverty line is eligible for assistance. Prof. Drumbl oversees a roster of eight students per semester, who manage approximately 45 to 50 cases per year.
Clients most commonly arrive at the clinic because of a notice of audit or non-payment or underpayment of previous taxes. Often, they face large liabilities, including penalties and interest, with scant resources. Under Professor Drumbl’s guidance, students are often able to vastly reduce this financial burden through negotiations with the IRS.
Drumbl finds the daily work of running the clinic to be intellectually stimulating in ways beyond the client work. It has inspired ideas for her scholarship, including a current project titled Decoupling Taxes & Marriage: Beyond Innocence and Income Splitting. In this article, Professor Drumbl tackles the issue of joint and several liability for married couples filing joint returns, examining how the law creates an unfair conundrum for low-income taxpayers in particular. In 2010, Professor Drumbl co-authored Skills and Values: Federal Income Tax, a Lexis-Nexis book designed to help law students bridge the gap between the basic federal income tax class and the practice of tax law.
Helping clients faced with the might of the IRS, is “always a fantastic feeling” according to Drumbl; but her greatest satisfaction comes from watching third-year law students grow in confidence and ability as they prepare for the profession. “What I enjoy most is watching the students evolve into thoughtful counselors who take ownership of their clients’ legal cases. My hope is that the Tax Clinic experience will help our students transition effectively as they enter practice following graduation, whether that practice involves tax, corporate law, or public interest work.” Also, working with clients who are struggling engenders a greater sense of perspective on life and the law for professor and students alike. “It is humbling…and that’s a good thing,” Drumbl says.