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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Tax Prof Profile, New Professor Edition: Shari Motro

This week's Tax Prof Spotlight continues our series of profiles of folks starting their careers as tax professors at American law schools. We hope the profiles will help introduce our newest colleagues to the tax community. [If you are, or know of someone who is, a beginning tax professor, please email me here to be included in the series.]

Spotlight_2Shari Motro (Richmond)

      • B.A. 1995, Yale
      • J.D. 2001, N.Y.U. 

   

Smotro

I went to law school looking for a conceptual framework for thinking about Arab-Israeli relations. I grew up in Israel, came to the U.S. for college and majored in philosophy, then returned to Israel to complete my military service, which included translating parts of the Olso II peace agreement. Following my service, I spent time in Jordan studying Arabic and working at a newspaper, then dipped into graduate work in Jewish and Middle Eastern history. Still, I found myself thirsty for a systematic approach to the ethical complexities of Israel's current position vis-à-vis its neighbors and minorities.

To my surprise, I found the richest, most analytically satisfying tools for thinking about fairness and power in my tax classes at NYU (and in my wonderful first year property course, taught by Barbara Fried, who, I realized later, is an accomplished tax scholar). Deborah Schenk's and Noel Cunningham's policy-rich tax courses were special favorites. Tax also satisfied my penchant for puzzle solving. But my biggest surprise was that tax led me to discover another fascinating field that is still in its infancy: the visual representation of legal concepts. To me, tax without diagrams was like algebra without formulas. Studying for my exams, I drew poster-size charts, and during my last semester I did an independent study on visual approaches to tax pedagogy. Over the summer before I started practicing, with Deborah Schenk's generous help, I created The Income Tax Map: A Bird's-Eye View of Federal Income Taxation for Law Students.

The Tax Map was published by West while I was practicing in the tax department of Davis Polk and Wardwell. My colleagues at DPW were among the most intellectually engaged and dedicated people I have met. I was especially lucky to work with Harry Ballan and Mario Verdolini, both inspiring practitioners with a passion for ideas. Ultimately, I found myself more interested in theoretical issues than in practice. And though several of the lawyers I worked with, especially Carr Ferguson, were enthusiastic about the Tax Map, my growing fascination with inventing new ways of explaining tax law wasn't directly relevant to my work.

So I left Davis Polk to teach a seminar at Yale titled "Visual Approaches to Legal Thought," which I hoped would confirm my hunch that I belonged in the classroom. Within weeks I was hooked, and the more I delved into information graphics the more I understood the extraordinary and largely untapped potential of legal graphics, especially in explaining abstract concepts like tax law.

Though I knew that I loved teaching and writing, I didn't set out to become a professor immediately following my semester at Yale because I was pursuing projects that at the time seemed to me more popular than academic--a piece on the legal consequences of marriage and an Edward Tufte-inspired analysis of maps illustrating Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. But the more I delved into both projects, the more scholarly they became. What began as a descriptive project about marriage turned into a policy argument against marital status discrimination generally, and in the tax system in particular. My work on peace maps taught me that the type of research and collaboration that goes into my projects is precisely the type of work that universities exist to foster.

Nevertheless, my decision to leave New York was hard because during my last year there, I found the next best thing to a university teaching position. Not long before uploading my resume onto the AALS website, I was recruited to join a new think tank focusing on the role of graphics in peacemaking. Empax helped me complete and publish Lessons from the Swiss Cheese Map in Legal Affairs, which involved collaborating again the designer who laid out the Tax Map to create a new visual concept of the "two-state solution."

I became a professor after all because I craved the disciplined, analytical framework of tax and of law school teaching generally. I joined the University of Richmond because I was inspired by the faculty's openness and enthusiasm about my various interests and by Dean Smolla's vision for the school.

I have never been happier professionally. I moved here in June, and spent one of my most productive and satisfying summers writing and creating folders for all the tangents I had to cut out of my current project. They wait for me like unopened presents. This semester I am teaching Federal Income Tax, and in the Spring I will be covering Wills and Trusts. Both courses flow directly into my scholarship, which focuses on the intersection of tax and personal relationships. My students are both smart and unpretentious, and their questions teach me new things every day. My colleagues have welcomed me warmly and my new tax mentor, Mary Heen, has been tremendously kind and insightful.

Walking through the 70-feet-high pines outside my office, I often stop and find myself amazed that this is my job. I feel incredibly fortunate, and I am grateful to the many generous people who gave me the courage to go after the thing I wanted most.

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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