By Grace Yurish


Navigating issues with the IRS can be a frustrating and complicated process for anyone, but for those with a low income, finding a resolution can be even more challenging. Fortunately, organizations like 603 Legal Aid (603LA) and the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law (UNH Law) have joined forces to assist these individuals while providing valuable hands-on learning experiences to law students.

Barbara Heggie, supervising attorney at 603LA’s Low-Income Taxpayer Project (LITP), has merged her dedication to public service with her passion for teaching by spearheading a tax practicum course at the law school. Launched last fall, the Federal Low-Income Taxpayer Practicum is a rigorous, three-credit course that integrates classroom instruction with clinical components. Under the guidance of the LITP, the practicum covers fundamental administrative federal tax practice and teaches students to represent clients before the IRS in basic cases involving various issues such as return preparation, audits, collections, and appeals.

In an experiential component, students are assigned cases primarily involving incarcerated people seeking help with missing stimulus payments. There are five students in the course, each handling three cases.

“It’s a good learning experience because the law is fairly straightforward,” Heggie says. “It’s the procedure that is for the students to learn. That’s why I really like teaching this course using these cases. The students can focus on learning to deal with the IRS – learning how to contact them in the right way, fill out the forms, and figure out how to solve the client’s problem – all while communicating properly with the client and managing the case in our case management system so that we can keep track of all the cases and make sure that no client is left behind.”

Having a representative in these cases is incredibly important, as issues involving missing stimulus payments can drag on for years due to a variety of reasons.

“It’s really disheartening when you realize how long people have to wait,” Heggie says.

Kate Miller, a 2L student in the course and an intern at the LITP says, “Barb is an incredible instructor, and she really has a wonderful approach to engaging with students and meeting us where we are. She genuinely loves what she does and that really shows through how she interacts with students, how she explains things, and the approach she has to working with her clients. It’s a great class. I look forward to it every time.”

Despite predominantly communicating with clients via mail, students have had the opportunity to meet them in prisons across the state. Trips to facilities like the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin and the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord not only facilitate client interaction but also provide students with firsthand insights into their clients’ circumstances.

“I think the main thing that we learn from working with our clients is that these people are just human beings,” Miller says. “It’s easy to think about taxes as just a numbers game. But everyone we work with is a sympathetic person with a complex life and complex opinions about complex topics. It’s been really wonderful getting to know them individually while working with them.”

Barbara Heggie (center) with two of her students, Katie Kimmith (left) and Kate Miller (right), visiting clients at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. Courtesy Photo

Beyond client representation, students engage in effective education and outreach initiatives, particularly for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes through organizations like the International Institute of New England.

“ESL tax education is a requirement of all Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics across the country,” Heggie says. “The idea is to make sure that everyone in this country knows their basic rights and responsibilities under the US tax laws. This is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I just love teaching anyway, and I love teaching a room full of people who are mostly refugees who are new to this country and seeing that they really want to learn. They want to know what they should do and they’re eager to make sure they do it right.”

During this segment of the course, students received firsthand experience in teaching ESL classes, simplifying tax concepts for better comprehension.

“It taught me a lot,” Miller says. “We had to phrase our explanations and answers in the most clear and basic terms, which helped me understand a lot about our tax system. So, it was a win-win.”

Heggie says she is proud of her students, emphasizing the difficulties of taking on clients while in the middle of a semester of law school. Heggie has been involved in public interest work for most of her career, volunteering for a legal aid organization right out of law school and joining the LITP when it was a part of the NHBA’s Pro Bono Referral Program before the 603LA merger.

She had various roles in between and spent some time with her family but shares, “All along, I wanted to stay in public interest work because that’s what makes me feel good.”

Her dedication to helping others through her work has inspired her students, like Miller, to do the same.

“From working with Barb and from this course, I’ve cemented my love of pro bono legal work and my passion for using the law to help people as much as possible,” Miller says. “That was something that I was hoping I would have the opportunity to do when I came to law school. I didn’t know exactly what form it would take, or what practice area it would be in, but I feel like I’ve ended up somewhere stellar. I think this has definitely shown me the right path and I’m grateful for that.”

This collaborative effort between 603 LA and UNH Law not only empowers low-income individuals but also nurtures the next generation of advocates dedicated to serving their communities.