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Pro Bono Service Spotlight: Craig D. Bell

This article was originally published in "Just Cause" - the Virginia State Bar Access to Justice Newsletter, April 2024

Craig D. Bell

Partner, McGuireWoods LLP

Pro Bono Programs:

– The Community Tax Law Project (CTLP)

– William & Mary Law School Low Income Tax Clinic

Pro Bono Practice Areas: Federal, state, and local tax controversy and tax litigation

Volunteer Tenure: 30+ Years

Craig has been providing pro bono services to low-income taxpayers through the Community Tax Law Project (CTLP) since 1992. In his very first meeting with CTLP staff, he was surprised to learn about the many types of tax issues and problems the working poor face.


“I initially figured only more wealthy clients could have tax problems. Boy was I wrong!”


He also learned that there was little in the way of private lawyer support to address the problems faced by low-income families. A substantial step in getting private tax lawyers involved and bringing services to those in need, Nina Olson and CTLP staff created the first Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) in 1992. LITCs provide tax attorneys like Craig the opportunity to immediately make an impact by helping get families back into full tax compliance so they can focus on family and work and not live in fear.


“The IRS and other taxing jurisdictions have powers to impose and collect taxes levied and the taxpayers typically [don’t] know if the claimed tax bills are correct and owed or how they can challenge the tax deficiency. I felt empowered that I could help families in need with my areas of tax experience where there were few other available providers.”


Inspired by the program developed by CTLP, Craig created the William & Mary Law School Low Income Tax Clinic in 2001 to expand pro bono tax services to the Hampton Roads area. Craig is particularly proud of the way the clinic instills in law students the value of using legal skills to help others.


The passion of CTLP staff initially inspired Craig to service 30 years ago, but it’s his pro bono clients that keep him volunteering. One of Craig’s most memorable cases came in his first year of volunteering. He helped a mother claim “innocent spouse” protection so that she would not be jointly liable for her separated husband’s unreported income; her husband had convinced her to file jointly, but he had income he didn’t disclose to her or the IRS. Craig worked on the case for two years and just prior to a hearing in the U.S. Tax Court, the IRS conceded and refunded his pro bono client’s seized earnings, plus interest. In response to the victory, his client sent him a handwritten thank-you note, telling him she used the tax refund to purchase new clothes and a laptop for her daughter who had been accepted by Virginia Tech. The client said it was the first time in her life that she was able to purchase new clothes and felt she was setting her daughter up for future success thanks to Craig’s efforts.


“After reading that handwritten note, I was hooked. I realized that I could be effective and help folks in my tax law practice area.”


Craig credits his firm for making it easier to stay engaged, noting that McGuireWoods LLP has a strong commitment to supporting pro bono service in several different legal practice areas. Practice group leaders are in a unique position to build pro bono culture, and Craig jumped at the chance to amplify pro bono efforts when he was firm’s Tax Department Chair, highlighting the professional development and skill-building benefits of pro bono service.


“I would approach our tax associates and young tax partners with a request for them to take a pro bono tax case. If they were not a litigator, I told them I would collaborate with them from start to finish. I instilled that the skills learned are directly relevant to their tax practice. Whether they work in employee benefits, executive compensation, private wealth services and estate planning, and business tax, all have certain elements in common. All these tax practice areas involve a constant interaction with the IRS and Office of Independent Appeals. The skills learned from a pro bono tax case provide the lawyer with direct experience in interacting with the IRS in all these areas . . . and at the same time helping a family in need. Today we have both associates and partners taking on pro bono tax matters and our attorneys find the work rewarding and enjoyable.”


The cases that come through CTLP are varied and the need for assistance is great. Craig believes it’s a great opportunity for all lawyers to get involved.


“Try it. Work with a lawyer who is already doing pro bono tax work and see how you can be effective for a family that is seeking to make ends meet, and at the same time broaden your legal experiences by collaborating with clients, analyzing the tax law, learning about federal practice and procedure. Everyone has something to gain.”

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