Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Taxman Cometh

Taxes were due a week ago and tax day always reminds me of my first advocacy client.  In my second year of law school (making me a 2L in legal jargon), I secured a job in a nonprofit dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities.  My role within this organization was to advocate for clients who were suffering from discrimination for their disabilities.  The executive director had many, many years of experience advocating for disability rights.  She supervised my efforts and I also worked closely with one of my law professors.

My first advocacy client was a sweet, mousy woman who tiptoed through life desperately trying to avoid attracting notice.  She struggled to say 'no' to anyone and that tended to get her into trouble.  Some rather unscrupulous businesses convinced her to sign some contracts that she did not understand and that cost her more money than she could afford.  Due to her ongoing desire to avoid attracting notice, she lived with this situation for quite some time before seeking help.  She has several cognitive and intellectual disabilities, so someone suggested that she participate in a support group our nonprofit organized.  After a few months of coming to our events and forming relationships with my coworkers, she asked for advice on how to handle her situation with the unscrupulous businesses. This is how I was introduced to her.

In Tennessee, all parties to a contract must have the "mental capacity" to enter into a contract.  To oversimplify, this means that everyone must be able to understand that signing a contract has consequences, including the legal requirement to comply with its terms.  After interacting for about five minutes with my client, I realized that she most likely did not have the mental capacity to enter into these contracts.  The individuals who induced her to sign these contracts should have come to this realization as well.  Obviously, they chose to accept her signature.

As this was my first advocacy project, I spent almost 30 hours conducting legal research and another 10 hours writing a letter to these businesses laying out the case that my client did not have the mental capacity to enter into these contracts and proposing that she buy out of the contracts at what we believed was a reasonable price (a similar project would probably take me less than 5 hours total today).  My organization's executive director and my law professor were heavily involved in the letter-writing process and we ended up with a powerful end product.  In the end, none of the businesses chose to pursue the matter and accepted our terms.  We were ecstatic.

Over the next two years, I was privileged to watch that client blossom.   Some of my other coworkers helped her secure employment, set up a strong support network, and to otherwise help her get on her feet.  She was able to find part-time work as a receptionist and to slowly grow a side business.  Shortly before I graduated law school, she came into my office one day to show me her tax return.  She owed an amount less than $20 and she was in tears.  At first, I thought she was upset because she would not be getting a tax refund, but she was in tears because she would be paying into the tax system for the first time in her entire life.  She felt like she was finally contributing something to society and that realization made her literally weep with joy.  "Joy" is not a word I have ever used before in connection with paying taxes.


Advocacy is empowering.  We fought for our client and this communicated to her that we recognized her inherent value.  She was able to score a win and feel like a winner for the first time in a long while.  That feeling spurred her to take on more challenges in her life and to succeed at them.  She turned her life around in a little over a year.  This lesson has paid dividends in my criminal defense practice.  I have represented innocent defendants and I have represented defendants who were very guilty.  Even with the guilty clients, I am always amazed how positively defense attorneys can impact their clients by treating them with respect, with dignity, and by fighting for them.  I have yet to see someone turn their lives around to the extent that my first client did, but I have a long career head of me yet!  

2 comments:

  1. Treating people with dignity and respect is both vital and seemingly a dying art. Well done and great story!

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  2. It's a rare person indeed that judges their value in the world by their tangible contributions to it even if it's by paying a tax. I have never been happy about the taxes I pay, but that's only because the government isn't always a good steward of our money. But a certain part of self-pride is derived by being a contributor rather than a taker. I've been on both sides of that.

    And good for her. Even someone of limited mental capacity can display more honor that someone fully in control.

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