In 2018, it was reported that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was able to pull 5.6 million people out of poverty, including 3 million children. This is extremely important to Tameka Lester and the people she helps in the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic. As associate director of the clinic, Lester trains law students to work with real clients whose accounts are in collections by the IRS. She says it is challenging, but rewarding work to help people successfully navigate a system that can seem insurmountable.
“What I love about clinic is that I get to keep one foot in practice and work with students to represent clients who would likely go unrepresented because they don’t have money to pay an attorney,” she said.
Lester’s path to tax law was a winding one. The South Carolina native started her career in marketing and switched to banking when she moved to Charlotte, N.C. While working for Wells Fargo (then Wachovia), she decided to pursue an MBA, and the case-based format of her classes piqued her interest in continuing on to law school. While in law school at North Carolina Central University, she participated in a tax law internship and after graduation became the director of NCCU’s then new tax clinic.
“The Tax Clinic pulls together my marketing background because I’m constantly talking about the clinic in the community and my business degree as I’m managing people and processes as well as building infrastructure,” Lester said.
After directing the tax clinic at NCCU for four years, Lester joined the well-established one at Georgia State Law in 2015. The Tax Clinic handles up to 250 cases at any given time and hosts two Saturday IRS settlement dates annually. She and Tax Clinic director Ted Afield often call it “E.R. lawyering,” and students get to hone their skills in a trial-by-fire manner.
“I like to see them become more efficient, especially the Clinic II students,” Lester said. “Whether they choose to go into tax or not, they’re going to handle a lot of cases and legal tasks as lawyers so I like to see them have a system for work management.”
In addition to teaching, during her tenure Lester has deepened the Tax Clinic’s community connections and elevated its national reputation. She testified before Congress in 2017 at the request of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) about instituting reforms to help people have better interactions with the IRS. She also serves on the American Bar Association Publication Committee and the Legal Studies Advisory Board at Herzing University and heads the American Association of Law Schools Clinicians of Color Subcommittee, where she and colleagues across the country help faculty of color navigate careers in academia.
One of the biggest boons Lester brings to the Tax Clinic is a partnership with United Way of Greater Atlanta. She and clinic fellow Emily Yaun train volunteer tax preparers through the federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to help needy families make the most of their tax returns. Lester recently attended an event for EITC Awareness Day hosted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Lester spoke about the clinic’s work at the event, which was aimed at raising awareness about the credit because 40 percent of people who qualify don’t know they are eligible.
Lester says that as an attorney and educator, her ultimate goal is to equip students with “the soft skills needed for practice, hopefully an awareness of tax-related consequences and a love for pro bono service, no matter what area of law they go into.”