Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Many years back, I got a phone call from the mother of a student. Right at the outset, she began scolding me because her daughter, after taking my income tax course, was unable to prepare the family’s income tax return. Mom saw no reason why senior family members should have to use a tax preparation service; the family was, she insisted, of only modest means, particularly after paying the daughter’s tuition. What was it that I was doing in class, she wanted to know. The only defense that came to mind was that I had higher ambitions for my class than tax return preparation and that “teaching to the forms” was (and is) not common practice in tax law teaching. Quickly realizing the spuriousness of my response— long before the MacCrate Report was emphasizing the importance of skills training—and determined to avoid tensions with future students’ mothers, I have made it a practice ever since to require completion of an income tax return.
I believe I know why tax teachers have ignored the tax return in legal education. A tax return is required of all Americans, not just lawyers. It seems that many law professors, moreover, think that we are a breed above our business school brethren (in which class I must also count myself, having taught in both law and business schools). They are the number crunchers, we are the theoreticians. Tax returns are just not within our jurisdiction. ...The distinction between the training of tax lawyers and tax accountants, however, is, in an important respect, an unrealistic one. Whatever accountants need to know for successful practice, lawyers must be able to see the forest, the big picture, even if only rarely do we prepare income tax returns, our own included. Tax law students simply cannot have a holistic view of the system if they learn by taking one tree at a time as we do now: what is income?; when can you deduct an outlay?; how do you combine capital gains and losses, short term and long term?; and so on. They need to see how all the pieces of the system fit together.