From Educator to Tax Advocate: Tax Clinic Director's Journey to Law

Can you share a little bit about your background and how you decided to go to law school? 

Although I was born in an inland village in China, I count myself very lucky because through my Mom’s strong will and hard work, I was able to attend school all the way through college in China. I became the first ever college graduate from my small village. I then managed to attend graduate school in Australia and law school here in the United States through a combination of self-support and scholarships. 

Growing up seeing the positive impact teachers had and how they changed our minds and our lives, I always wanted to be a teacher. I started my professional career as an educator, first training future teachers in China and then serving as an education consultant to college students in Australia. After immigrating to the United States, however, I started to see the importance and prevalence of law in everyday life here. I also witnessed firsthand how language and social-economic barriers restricted people’s (including my own) ability to access the protection of the law. I further came to realize how bilingual and affordable legal assistance can bridge the access gap and make a difference in peoples' lives. That led me to law school, and to a rebirth of myself as a legal professional.

Reflecting on my career path, I resonate with Steve Job’s quote: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Those dots in my life – my life struggle first growing up in a village and then managing on my own working multiple part-time jobs while attending schools in two continents, my planned initial path as a teacher, my unexpected shift to the legal field, my two summers working in litigation, connect perfectly to my current job, which draws from all of those  different experiences in three different countries and continents. I hope you will do your best in whatever comes your way and trust that they will somehow connect in your future and make all the difference for you too.

Please share a brief overview of your professional history in tax law.

I started my tax law practice right after law school, serving first as an entry-level tax counsel and soon advancing to the role of legal advisor to an elected state tax official. In that position, I had the unique opportunity to work on a lot of interesting issues and to effect lasting change on various tax regulations and procedures. My job duties included conducting legal research and analysis of statutory and regulatory change proposals; advising the tax official on tax policy and tax administration issues; preparing briefs on current and emerging issues; preparing analysis and recommendations on tax appeals on a variety of tax issues, preparing articles for trade publications and taxpayer organizations, and even writing speeches and representing the tax official on community events. I did a lot and learned a lot more and grew even more both personally and professionally through that that 8-year experience.

After the position termed out after eight years, I went to work at the legal department of the then largest state tax agency and spent several years working on property tax issues and writing formal legal opinions advising both internal program staff and external county assessors. I went on to work on sales and use tax matters and argued and won many cases at oral hearings. Then during the pandemic, my current job position was posted and it was a full circle moment for me to go back to my roots as an educator, while still maintaining my legal practice helping some of the most vulnerable taxpayers.

I have practiced tax law for about 18 years now, and have worked at all major CA state tax agencies, in all major tax areas, in different legal functions, on both regulatory and policy change projects and hundreds of appeals.

You currently teach Loyola Law School's State Income Tax Clinic. What legal services does this clinic provide clients and what kind of educational experience does it provide legal students?

State Income Tax Clinic provides full representation mostly to low-income taxpayers contesting FTB actions before the Office of Tax Appeals (OTA). Students conduct legal and factual research on their cases, work with the opposing counsels to resolve the cases whenever we can, counsel the taxpayers on the case options, file legal briefs with OTA, and argue their cases on their behalf at oral hearings before OTA. I guide the students on how to do issue spotting, where and how to research cases both legally and factually, how to present case facts persuasively or objectively in different situations, how to connect the dots between the law and the facts effectively and efficiently, how to strategize case options efficiently, and how to advocate for the clients effectively, etc.

Do you have any advice for law students who are interested in this field of work and how they might be able to pursue it after graduation?

It is always good to have a plan. But at the same time, it is good to be open-minded. You may be pleasantly surprised at the opportunities that come your way, spontaneously. Also, before you throw yourself into any field, it is good to get a test for it first to see if it matches your expectation and also to see if your skillset matches what is called for in that field. Do your research and have a realistic understanding about what a tax law practice really is and what sub-fields are in it. For example, for tax litigation, contrary to the common myth, it mostly is NOT about numbers or math.

One way to learn about tax law practice is to create opportunities to talk to tax lawyers. For example, the opposing counsels on our clinic’s cases are not just opposing counsels. They are tax experts and more importantly once law students. That’s why I always encourage our clinic students to chat their opposing counsels up and learn about their perspectives and their tips and tricks both on job-hunting and career-building.

Another way is the State bar tax Policy Conference, which offered free entrance for law students in the last couple of years. It is as much a networking opportunity as a conference to learn tax law and policy trends.

A third way to learn about the tax law practice is by participating in State Income Tax Clinic or any other tax clinic at Loyola, which is a great career-testing or career-finding opportunity. We have students coming in, intent on practicing tax law and then changing their mind after learning what tax practice truly is and what it takes. Conversely, we have students who never had any interest in tax law but just joined us to fulfill their pro bono requirement and get some general legal practice but ended up loving tax law.

At Loyola, we pride ourselves in the variety of different clinical offerings we have. What sort of skills can students expect to gain/hone at the State Income Tax Clinic? 

Students in the State Income Tax Clinic all get their own clients and own cases. So, they get to practice all core legal skills: legal and evidentiary research, client communication, client counselling, legal writing, oral advocacy, etc., all easily transferable to other legal setting or even to other life situations. So even if you do not have any particular interest in tax law, you can still benefit, equally, from participating in our clinic.