The Tax ‘Angel’
Elizabeth Copeland spearheaded a program to help low-income taxpayers stand up to the IRS
Published in 2017 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 5, 2017
Nearly 10 years ago, Elizabeth Copeland established the State Bar of Texas’ Tax Court Pro Bono Program, offering free legal assistance to low-income taxpayers in trouble with the IRS. It now serves as a model for more than 20 states.
It also has welcome side benefits.
“I can promise you that none of my paying clients has ever called me ‘an angel who came straight down from heaven,’” says the tax attorney with Strasburger & Price in San Antonio. “I’ve gotten that more than once in the pro bono program. It’s a great feeling.”
Copeland began her career as an accountant, working audits. She loved it. But in the back of her mind loomed the image of Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Copeland learned of her story as a middle schooler.
“It was very impressive to me at the time that a woman could achieve that sort of goal as an agent of change,” she recalls. “I know not all senators are lawyers, but I thought that you had to go to law school if you wanted to do these great things.”
So, three years into a CPA career, Copeland applied to the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. And while working on the state Bar’s pro bono committee, she heard about a free tax-assistance program in Los Angeles.
“I called up the United States Tax Court, and I talked to their chief special trial judge, Peter Panuthos, and I told him that I was thinking about creating that sort of program—but statewide for Texas, in all five cities that the Tax Court sits—and he was very excited,” Copeland recalls. The Tax Court was already drafting rules for such a program but hadn’t finished, and Panuthos was thrilled to have Copeland jump in. “So I drafted the governing rules; I drafted sample forms for the representation; I drafted emails to solicit volunteers,” she says.
She expected that email blast to Texas Bar members to garner a few responses, but was stunned when she got a slew. In 2008, she set up Texas’ program in Lubbock, El Paso, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
“The ABA tax section’s pro bono coordinator called to ask for our forms,” Copeland says. “I said, ‘Of course, and you can put me as the point of contact if anybody’s thinking about starting one.’” And call they did. “They just took it and ran.”
She explains how the program works: “The attorneys volunteer for a day to go down to the courthouse at the calendar call to help unrepresented taxpayers evaluate their cases, put together evidence, help [them] learn how to present evidence to the court, and try to settle their case if possible.
“Generally, the court will ask them if they want to consult with an attorney volunteer, and if they do, there’s always a coordinator at each session. When I started, it was me at every session, at every city, because I wanted to make sure it was working.”
If a taxpayer’s case couldn’t be settled, a volunteer attorney had a choice: Advise the taxpayer on the best way to present his or her own evidence to the judge at Tax Court; or tell Copeland, as the volunteer coordinator, that you want to represent the taxpayer and try the case before the Tax Court. Copeland says, “Then I would have to give authority for that, which I’ll tell you is what I did every single time: ‘Absolutely! Go try the case!’”
In the meantime, President Obama nominated Copeland to the U.S. Tax Court, and she stepped away from the program to prepare. She passed the Senate subcommittee but never came up for a full vote, her nomination expiring with the end of the 114th Congress.
Copeland has since stepped back into the program in a more limited way, coordinating calendar calls in San Antonio. She co-chairs the state Bar’s pro bono committee and gives speeches to community and legal groups, including STEM groups—to whom she encourages girls in math and science—and law students considering tax law.
Her practice area is one of the most fulfilling, she says: “You’ve got a very scared client that you’re able to help work through whatever problem with the Internal Revenue Service. It’s very rewarding.”