Public Service Voices

The Accidental Public Interest Lawyer

By Scott Schumacher
Director, UWLS Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic

I have been asked to write about how I ended up as a public interest lawyer and the value I see in doing public interest work.  I took a rather unusual path to public interest work.  So, at the risk of turning this article into self-indulgent history of my career path, I will go through where I started in the law and how I ended up running a clinic and teaching tax at the UW.  My purpose is to show you that your career may be vastly different than the one you have set out for yourself and that the most rewarding part of a life in the law may have nothing to do with the salary that you earn.

I am sort of the accidental public interest lawyer.  When I went to law school, my goal was to be a business lawyer, advising small and medium sized businesses.  During my J.D. studies, I enrolled in a tax course because I thought it was something I needed to know, even though I was not terribly excited about taking the course.  I ended up loving tax law and went to New York University to get my LL.M. in taxation (the UW did not have an LL.M in tax back then).  My tax studies reinforced my desire to be a business and tax lawyer in a large law firm.

However, my career took a different path.  I was offered a clerkship with the Chief Judge of the United States Tax Court in Washington, D.C., an opportunity I felt I could not pass up. During my clerkship, I found that I was interested in tax litigation, and I liked the immediacy and human drama that is inherent in litigation.  (Yes, there is human drama even in tax cases.)  The judge for whom I was clerking encouraged me to apply to the Tax Division of U.S. Department of Justice, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the honors program at the Justice Department.  My plans for a safe office practice doing business planning had radically changed.  I had joined the DOJ and I was handling appeals of white collar criminal cases in the federal courts of appeals.

During my four years at Justice, I really learned how to be a lawyer, and many of the things that I use in running the Tax Clinic and in teaching I learned during my time with the government.  While I liked my job, I nevertheless still wanted to try private practice, and I joined a tax litigation firm in Seattle. Over the next five years, I represented mostly wealthy clients in tax and white collar criminal cases. 

While most of my clients had money, many prospective clients would call for help, but there was no way that they could afford my firm’s (or any law firm’s) hourly rate.  My firm had a practice, however, of spending time with these individuals helping to educate them on the tax system and what they needed to do to resolve their cases on their own.  Through these experiences, I saw first-hand how the law, especially a hugely-complex area of the law like tax, can impact people who cannot afford an attorney.  Thus, when I was asked to be the part-time interim director of the law school’s new low-income taxpayer clinic, I jumped at the chance.  While maintaining a practice downtown and establishing and running a clinic at the law school created a rather hectic schedule, I found that my time working with the students, teaching in the classroom, and representing people who could not afford my exorbitant hourly rate was the best time I had each week.  When I was asked to teach the clinic on a full-time basis, my decision was an easy one. 

For the last five and a half years, I have had the pleasure of working in the clinical law program and representing people in disputes with the IRS.  Thanks to the support of the law school and the Graduate Program in Taxation, I have been able do the kind of work that I love without having to worry about whether my clients can pay me (since, by definition, they cannot).  The law school’s and Tax Program’s support of the Tax Clinic has allowed us to provide free representation to nearly 600 clients, truly public service in action.

While the issues we face in the clinic are not as sophisticated and cutting-edge as the ones I would face in private practice, I am nevertheless able to use whatever knowledge and experience I have gained over my career helping people that truly could not afford competent counsel.  Tax law and the procedures involved in fighting the IRS are so complicated and daunting that without clinics like mine, our clients would have little chance in successfully defending themselves.  

Do I miss private practice?  Not at all.  What I have given up in leaving private practice is more than made up by the satisfaction I get in working with students and representing low-income folks.  Our clients are truly grateful for the help they receive.  And while no client has yet named one of their children after me, I remain ever hopeful. Should you be a public interest lawyer or perform regular pro bono work?  That is up to you to decide. But, while we hear so much about lawyer dissatisfaction, this is one lawyer who loves his job.  And that is perhaps the best reason for being a public interest lawyer, either as your full-time job or as in part-time pro bono work – for job satisfaction, for the love of the law, and for yourself.

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