Tax bills, law students, the Internal Revenue Service none of those things is particularly suggestive of the groups usually profiled in holiday stories.
But in the case of the University of Idaho College of Law Tax Clinic, those dry topics turn inspiring and human.
As part of their education, third-year law students help low-income people who have tax problems. The clinic began in Moscow about eight years ago and is in its fourth year in Boise.
Grants from the IRS Taxpayer Advocates Service support the clinic. It also accepts donations from the public. It is one of three free clinics the law school offers, along with small-business and economic development clinics.
Tax clinic clients have debts that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
But for most of our clients, it doesnt matter if its $100 or $10,000. They cant pay any of it, said Barbara Lock, tax clinic director.
By and large, the clinic works with clients who are well-intentioned but find themselves in dire circumstances and without money to hire a lawyer.
Clients include a woman who heard from the IRS after her husband abandoned her and she filed as head of the household. She claimed the earned income credit without realizing her husband had already done so. The clinic helped establish that the woman was the true head of the household; she got the $5,000 credit.
A 62-year-old former carpenter had worked sporadically over the years, falling behind on his taxes. He was scraping by on wages of less than $1,000 a month from his new job as a caretaker, trying to pay his $10,000 tax bill.
Hed saved $300, but the clinics lawyers-in-training were able to work with the IRS to reduce his bill to a nominal $10. He voluntarily paid the $300 as a point of pride.
COMMITTED TO THE CASE
The students worked on Juanita Morales case for three years. She said she doesnt know where she would be without them.
I am so blessed that the clinic was there when we needed it, she said.
Morales and her husband got into trouble when their 2-year-old house-framing business failed during the recession. They hired a sketchy preparer to do their taxes. An IRS audit questioned their deductions and sent Morales a bill of $30,000.
Morales tried to talk to IRS staffers, she said, but left their office in tears.
The law students had better luck. They were able to get Morales $30,000 bill reduced to less than $8,000, she said.
Today, things are better for her family. She has a job at the Community Council of Idaho in Caldwell. Her husband still works in construction.
The time the students gave to us, the commitment to our case, it took the weight off and we could breathe a sigh of relief, said Morales.
That sentiment is common, said Lock. One appreciative client not a person with deep pockets insisted on making a $200 donation to the clinic after his case was resolved. Others pledge to make donations when their financial situations improve.
TEXTBOOK TOPICS TURN HUMAN
The clinics benefits flow both ways.
The program has eight students, and each works on four or five cases at a time.
Third-year student Alex Bray, 33, came to study at the university from San Diego. Hes graduating in December and will spend one more year getting his masters in law. He intends to work in tax law.
The clinic is a great gateway for immediate experience. You get a stack of clients on Day One, and you run with it, Bray said.
Tax classes in law school are bare-boned, he said, the human element often missing. The tax clinic, where hes been able to solve issues for eight clients so far, is all about human interaction.
So often, people just want someone to listen, to be on their side, said Bray. People in these situations think theyre alone, that theyre the only ones dealing with something like this. Theyre not. Its life. It happens.
At 33, he has some years behind him. Many of his colleagues at the clinic are a decade younger. It might be odd for a client to walk in to the clinic and meet a 24-year-old law student who says I got this, said Bray.
But clients get zealous representation, he said. The students are so eager to learn, so eager to see results.
Anna Webb: 377-6431