It’s bad enough to have trouble with the IRS. It’s worse if you can’t afford a lawyer to help you out.
That’s why the Houston College of Law recently launched a taxpayer clinic for people with low income.
The space for the school’s 17 clinics for low-income clients is designed like a small law firm, said Vinh Ho, who manages them.
Here, students provide counsel in legal matters like immigration, veteran affairs or wrongful conviction.
Staff attorney Jeff Gold, who teaches the eight students that work in the taxpayer clinic, said the program is a win-win, “because it’s a teaching clinic, so we both try to help clients but also help the students learn how to be lawyers by acting like lawyers.”
Students usually meet with clients in pairs after they discuss the issue with their professor. The meeting is captured on video so that the teachers can provide feedback afterward.
So can students without a law degree give legal advice?
In this case yes, said Bruce McGovern, the director of the taxpayer clinic.
“Independently, a student at the college should not be providing advice to clients, but in a clinical setting – such as the tax clinic or any of our other clinics – the students can counsel the clients and provide guidance as long as they’re working under the supervision of an attorney,” he said.
So far, there’s been quite a response.
“We have phone calls coming in every day,” McGovern said. “And I think we probably have roughly 20 matters that we’re considering currently.”
They will first determine if applicants’ income level qualifies them. To receive the free service, clients can’t make more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
Presently, two clients are taking advantage of the taxpayer clinic.
Hannah Craft has just started seeing one of them. She’s in her third and last year at the law school and said working in the clinic is helping her in her studies – especially since she doesn’t have time for internships between her job and being a fulltime student.
“Tax law is scary for a student, for anyone that probably has to deal with an issue,” she said. “So this is really interesting to maneuver through the system, the tax system, the IRS and the laws that apply and really help a person that can’t help themselves.”