TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Spotlight_2Howard Abrams (Emory)

      • B.A. 1976, University of California-Irvine
      • J.D. 1980, Harvard Law School 



Habrams_1Insomnia is why I am a tax professor. I was an insomniac during law school, and in my second year I tried reading the high-numbered sections of the Code and regulations (my favorite was and remains Code § 7806(b)) to fall asleep. It did not work as well as I had hoped, but I learned a lot of tax. Enough both to do well in my course and to become interested in the subject as a career. When I learned that Judge Tannenwald (already on the Tax Court but not yet Chief Judge) was looking for a clerk, I applied for the position and was fortunate to be selected. For an aspiring tax professor, working at the Tax Court is an excellent beginning.

Judge Tannenwald was recognized as one of the shinning lights of the bench and bar, and his great specialty was corporate reorganizations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed all serious tax lawyers aspired to do corporate reorganizations. But even then my interest lay in the partnership arena, and that was not a bad choice until enactment of the passive loss limitations largely put tax shelters -- and with them much partnership tax work -- out of business. But by then I was an academic and so protected from this reduction in potential clients (I had spent six months at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison right after my clerkship -- it seemed like a safe choice at the time). I started at the University of Oklahoma for a year but moved to Emory University in 1983 where I have been ever since.

Well, mostly ever since. I spent the 1988-1989 academic year at Cornell, the 1999-2000 academic year in the National Office of Deloitte & Touche in Washington, DC, and the calendar year of 2003 at Steptoe & Johnson (also in DC). I am, I think, a much better law professor for having spent time in the private sector. Indeed, over the last half-dozen years I have done a lot of speaking to professional organizations (and with practitioners as other speakers), and my education has grown immeasurably. We are fortunate to have a remarkably capable bar, and I have found the lawyers who are active in the ABA Tax Section surprisingly willing to help educate even pin-head academics such as myself. Of course, creation of the limited liability company and promulgation of the check-the-box regulations has made partnership tax the way-cool area it always should have been.

I have been a teacher for almost 25 years, and what I do is largely a reflection of those who have come before. Professors Wolfman and Andrews formed much of my tax thinking, and I doubt I will ever break free of the mold they cast. Judge Tannenwald was kind enough (perhaps not always kindly) to teach me that hard work is at least as important as cleverness, and Richard Doernberg at Emory has given me someone to bounce ideas off for more than 20 years. Fred T. Witt (now of Deloitte & Touche) clerked with me 25 years ago, and we have remained close friends ever since. We approach tax problems from opposite directions -- he starts from the words of the Code, I start from the structure -- yet we almost always arrive at the same place. If I have had success in this business, my secret has been Fred: find someone smart who thinks very differently from the way you do, and then talk to him or her regularly.

But truth be told, my life has not been all tax. In the middle 1980s when personal computing was in its infancy and Windows had yet be developed, I wrote a software program called "MousePerfect," a mouse-interface for the leading DOS-based wordprocessor (WordPerfect). MousePerfect was great fun: it began and ended before the Internet so I did not become filthy rich, but for five or six years I got to see my software written up in most of the leading computer magazines. While never more than a two person operation, MousePerfect ultimately had distributors in the Benelux countries, in Australia, and in Mexico. IBM, Microsoft, and even NATO bought copies; the US military had a site license!

I'm trying to finish the BNA Portfolio on Disregarded Entities and a couple of short pieces on partnership taxation. And then I hope to turn to an Evidence article and perhaps even something on law and literature. I regularly teach for a few weeks of the summer at Leiden University, and I have been an adjunct as the University of Georgia for more than ten years. I have managed to win teaching awards three times (Richard has won five awards!), and I've testified before the Senate once. The Emory tax web page is here.

Each Saturday, TaxProf Blog shines the spotlight on one of the 700+ tax professors in America's law schools. We hope to help bring the many individual stories of scholarly achievements, teaching innovations, public service, and career moves within the tax professorate to the attention of the broader tax community. Please email me suggestions for future Tax Prof Profiles. For prior Tax Prof Profiles, see here.

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