The Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic is becoming a model for how other in-house clinics at Georgia State College of Law will operate in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The clinic had already planned to offer the course in the summer semester before the pandemic hit. Instead of scaling back, it has been operating completely virtual.
“We wanted to give it a shot because a lot of students might have had other opportunities that they were planning in the summer get canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 and this would be a good opportunity for them to still gain some practical legal experience over the summer,” said Ted Afield, Director of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.
The clinic consistently handles about 200 active cases and has 12 students enrolled in the summer course. The clinic’s transition to online-only has been successful, but with added challenges. Afield explains something as little as scanning and forwarding the postal mail from the IRS to the students slows down the process, since students aren’t in the building to handle it themselves.
It’s also been more difficult to resolve cases for their clients since the IRS is still operating at a limited capacity. As the summer goes by, Afield says the IRS is finding ways to become more innovative such as the virtual pro bono day the clinic held to settle cases for their clients.
“The overall economic impact of the pandemic is going to be something that our clients and future clients will be dealing with for likely the next decade,” Afield said. “I think that you will see a significant increase in the number of people that need our help in the coming months in years.”
With courts and administrations moving to mostly remote interactions, what students are learning in the clinic is a good window into how the next couple of years of their legal careers may progress.
“Because clinics are modeled after real law practice environments, our students are experiencing and overcoming the same challenges that practicing lawyers are handling right now,” said Lisa Bliss, Associate Dean of Experiential Education. “We now know more about how to teach clinics online and still maintain the richness of learning, professional development, and community building that happens in clinical education without being face to face.”
It’s been a learning experience not only for the students, but also for the tax clinic professors and staff. They’ve quickly found solutions to these obstacles and have helped lead the way for Georgia State Law’s other clinics to operate in an online environment.
“It’s certainly something that was new to me,” Afield said. “Not only did we have to prepare the students for it but we really had to learn what constitutes effective advocacy in that environment ourselves because we are kind of a sea change and how legal representation is conducted.”
Written by Mara Thompson