Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ABA Tax Section Reduces Support For Tax Profs

ABA Tax Section (2017)I was sad to learn that at the Austin meeting the ABA Tax Section Council voted to significantly reduce the academic speaker and academic leadership reimbursement policy, retaining it only for academics who meet the Tax Section's definition of "young lawyer" (under 40 or less than 5 years in practice). I believe this is a penny-wise, pound-foolish policy change and can serve only to damage the historically salutary close ties between tax practitioners and tax academics. I think my personal involvement with the ABA Tax Section would likely be much less had those reimbursements not been available to me. I explain more below the fold.

I practiced law for about 13 years before making a mid-life career move into academia at age 41. So I did not meet the definition of young lawyer. I do not believe I am an outlier. Tax is not a popular subject to teach (neither is Commercial law). As a result, schools tend to hire folks to teach tax who have actually practiced tax. Here at Texas Tech for example, of the last four tax hires, all have been similar to me, joining the academy after age 40 and after having practiced for more than 5 years.

When I went into academics I knew I was starting a new career and needed to work diligently to establish a respectable career path. One way I thought to do that was to participate in the ABA Tax Section meetings, in part because of the reimbursement policy. Travel funds are perennially short for untenured newbies. What really helps "sell" any conference to the Green-Shades in the Dean's office is that the conference thinks so highly of you that it is willing to share the cost! So if one is both (1) flying the institutional flag by being a speaker and (2) getting some cost sharing, then it's much easier to shake loose some money for the conference.

So I tried to get as many speaking opportunities as possible on Tax Section panels and I joined the Individual and Family Tax Committee leadership ladder. I did not do this solely because of the reimbursement policy. But the likelihood of my being able to attend three meetings a year for six years in my early career would have been much smaller but for the reimbursement policy. It is no coincidence, I think, that most of the leadership on that committee had been academics.

The ABA Tax Section meetings are also one of the very few section meetings that attract significant numbers of academics...enough to actually have a separate committee! I have attended other ABA Section meetings and find few, if any, academic connections there. But Tax Section meetings allow me to interact with more of my academic colleagues there than I can at some of the law school conferences. Yet most law schools are much less willing to fund travel to "practitioner" conferences than "academic" conferences. The Tax Section has traditionally valued that connection between academics and practitioners, believing that tax academics add value to the conferences.

Cutting back on that support may diminish the usefulness of Tax Section meetings for newbie (notice I don't say "young") academics. But for the ABA's reimbursement policy I would have been more likely to put my energies into other ways of establishing a reputation and developing a network of fellow academics. Now that I am a holder of a Pretty Good Professorship, I don't need the reimbursement. I have enough support to attend whatever conferences I like. But because of my early relationship with the Tax Section, I still attend at least one Section meeting per year. In fact I just spent this past Thursday participating on a great "Nuts and Bolts of Tax Collection" panel in Austin. I like to think that I added value. In might be that, in an alternative time line where there had been no reimbursement policy, I would still have been there in Austin. But the odds would be much less.

So that's why I am sad to see the Council reduce the academic reimbursement policy.

ABA Tax Section, Bryan Camp, Legal Education, Tax, Tax Conferences, Tax Profs | Permalink


@AnonProf - I don't have any problem with what you said. My personal bias is I always follow my own curiosity regardless of whether I get reimbursed, or whether it advances my career. Perhaps the real problem is: "...simply spend their limited travel resources attending conferences for which they get more bang for the buck (meaning, advancing their academic careers)." I find it troubling when law schools are divorcing themselves from the reality of practicing law in favor of something else, whatever that is.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Sep 21, 2017 5:27:17 AM

Dale, you are missing the point. No one is whining about whatever it is you think we’re whining. You seem to think that only practicing lawyers (who can afford attending) have a place in Section meetings, and profs are just party crashers who can’t afford the party, and if they want to afford the party, they should go out and earn more money as practitioners. That’s, well, stupid.
Professors don’t go to ABA meetings to “relive” their days as practitioners. I don’t miss practice very much. I go there because I think it benefits me (it is important for me, as a professor, to know what is going on in practice because it informs my research); because it benefits my students (I teach better if I know what’s going on in practice, and connections I build at meetings help my students in their job search); and, because it sets an example for students, whom I hope will become engaged with the profession. For the stated reasons, I also believe the Section benefits tremendously from having professors attending.
No reimbursement simply makes attendance much more expensive. Given you seem to be a true believer in market forces, you must understand that all that it means is that professors will stop attending. Professors will simply spend their limited travel resources attending conferences for which they get more bang for the buck (meaning, advancing their academic careers). This would be the rational thing to do. If that’s a price the Section is willing to pay to save a few dollars – so be it. I think it is wrong because the Section has much more to lose from not having profs attending, than profs do. That was Bryan’s point, which you so obviously missed.

Posted by: AnonProf | Sep 20, 2017 12:05:02 PM

I'm not a law professor. I'm not even a lawyer. (Although my daughter is - Sanford). But I have worked with a lot of lawyers over the last 40 years, and I find the argument that law professors make sacrifices in order to teach is disingenuous. Sure law professors make less than white-shoe partners; but, you may not believe this, I have heard over and over again, it takes a million dollars pre-tax to break even, if you're a partner working in Manhattan and living in the burbs. Except for a few souls at Columbia and NYU, my guess is the average law professor has a much lower cost of living than your typical big-law partner.

My point is to quit whining. Every morning you have a choice. You can decide to zig or zag. If you think you are underpaid as a law prof, quit.

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Sep 20, 2017 6:51:41 AM

@Anon. I appreciate the sentiment although I am not quite so pessimistic. I think the decision weakens the ties, not destroys them. After all, academics still get a sweet registration rate; Tax Section meetings are cheaper to attend than AALS (although more expensive than SEALS). And oldsters like me have slush funds to help them (and their colleagues). But the Tax Section leadership has historically been (properly) focused on recruiting the next generation and this decision moves away from that policy. The “young lawyer” box simply does not translate neatly to academia. So this decision runs a real risk in a long-term deterioration of the practice/professor partnership. A better fit would be “untenured” but even that is not an easy fit. Overall, it’s a marginal decision, but one that affects a big margin and, as we all know, marginal costs still do affect behavior.

Posted by: Bryan Camp | Sep 19, 2017 6:10:17 PM

This decision pretty much guarantees that no professors will serve in any official capacity. Serving in official capacity means attendance in all three annual meetings. I know very few Deans that will be willing to fund such a commitment. Speaking of which, how is the Section going to maintain the Teaching Taxation committee? All officials on the committee are tax professors. Are they expected to pay their own way?

Posted by: Anon | Sep 19, 2017 3:53:31 PM

I attended 3 ABA Tax Section meetings a year when I was in practice for 10 years. I've been in academia now for 8 years, and have had to cut back to 1 ABA Tax Section meeting a year because the budgets at universities are too tight.. I, too, am disappointed.

Posted by: Prof Mad | Sep 19, 2017 1:24:47 PM