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UK Law Students Save Taxpayers $95,000, Devote 2,732 Hours to Clients

University of Kentucky College of Law legal clinic

By: Whitney Harder

The American Bar Association calls on each lawyer to render at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services per year. In the 2014-2015 academic year, University of Kentucky College of Law students went well above and beyond that to serve Kentuckians.

Through the UK College of Law Legal Clinic and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, UK law students provided legal and tax preparation services for free, saving clients from hefty fines and finding solutions for difficult situations.

In the Legal Clinic, 29 third-year law students handled 92 cases for a total of 2,732 hours devoted to classroom and client casework, or approximately 94 hours of free legal aid provided by each student.

"For almost 20 years, the College of Law Legal Clinic has successfully met its educational goals of academic excellence through the development of practice skills and promotion of ethical values and responsibilities," said Professor Allison Connelly, who has directed the clinic since its founding in 1997. "The Clinic has firmly integrated itself into the community, established a sterling reputation of legal excellence and helped thousands of low income individuals."

"More importantly, by putting a human face on the legal problems and needs facing those without means, the clinic has promoted an understanding of the need for fairness and justice in our legal system, and has translated those needs into a valuable educational experience," she said.

In addition to working directly with clients and representing them in estates matters, divorces, housing, and tort and contract claims, UK Legal Clinic students also gained invaluable experience in mediation, interviewing, landlord-tenant laws, civil procedure, legal drafting, consumer protection law and more.

"Our clients have limited income and are often faced with situations in which they feel helpless because of their limited resources," said Marc Manley, who graduated from the UK College of Law in May but is still engaged in several Legal Clinic cases that will conclude over the summer. "Being able to close a difficult chapter in someone's life is indescribably more valuable than closing the chapter of a textbook."

Legal Clinic students also went beyond the classroom and courtroom and straight to the homes of their clients when they raised money and delivered Thanksgiving dinners to several clients and their families.

"The UK Legal Clinic is an important institution not only because it serves the less fortunate, but also because it provides meaningful assurance to the law student that their long hours in the library do in fact have the ability to make someone's life better," Manley said.

While the UK Legal Clinic provides an array of legal services to those in need, another UK College of Law clinic has been specializing for more than 20 years in one service: tax preparation, often a very complex and confusing process for taxpayers.  

For the 2015 tax return season, 19 law and 12 accounting students volunteered in the UK College of Law VITA program to assist 475 taxpayers complete their returns. Logging a total of more than 600 hours over the course of six and a half weeks, UK law students saved taxpayers about $95,000 in return preparation fees.

"This year was particularly challenging with the large number of unusual situations presented by taxpayer clients, as well as the rollout of the Affordable Care Act requirements," said Douglas Michael, UK College of Law associate dean of academic affairs and director of the VITA program. "These volunteers helped clients with complicated situations navigate many new and sometimes confusing rules. It is hard to imagine being a taxpayer in that situation without the help these student volunteers provide for free."

On behalf of those taxpayers, students prepared returns claiming total refunds of $536,844 for low-income taxpayers, as well as the large population of foreign students and scholars at UK.

To qualify as tax return preparers, students completed at least 15 classroom or online training hours and passed three IRS tests on tax law and procedure. But it is well worth the time and effort for students who are eager to use their legal skills to benefit community members.

"I like the idea of making taxes and tax preparation less stressful, and less expensive, for beleaguered taxpayers," said Cate Poole, who volunteered in the VITA program year after year until she graduated from the College of Law in 2011, and has returned as a site supervisor each year since 2013.

Noting that each taxpayer has a unique situation, Poole said, "I've seen a lot over the years … no, unfortunately I cannot verify your spouse's ID over FaceTime," she joked. "I love using that experience to help people."

The UK College of Law VITA program will open again to the community in February of 2016. For information about the program, visit www.law.uky.edu/tax. For more information about the UK College of Law Legal Clinic, call 859-257-4692.