If the halls of the Internal Revenue Service could ever be described as abuzz, it would have been last summer. I arrived in D.C. for my summer internship in June of 2013, less than a month after the so-called IRS “Tea Party scandal” broke. I was working in the tax exempt and government entities division of the associate chief counsel’s office, which administers the regulations at issue in the questioned audits. (To be clear, IRS audits are conducted in what is known as the commissioner’s office, not the chief counsel’s office; I did not work on any audits, Tea Party or otherwise, nor was I privy to any information related to the investigations.)
After sitting in my first meeting of IRS and Treasury officials discussing the regulations in question, I realized that this was a different kind of lawyering than anything I had been exposed to before. It was exciting not just because the stakes were evidently high, but because it required a different kind of thinking than any of my doctrinal classes, the research that I had done, or even my clinical experience representing clients in court.
Writing regulations is not about argumentation or negotiation (though those are of course parts of the “sausage-making” process). Rather, I was being asked to think about how to translate policy priorities into practice. There is an art to piecing the regulatory puzzle together—thinking about all of the people who will be affected by it and how they will interpret the regulations. Precision is important, as is understanding trade-offs in systems design, such as accuracy versus administrability and avoiding loopholes.
Last spring, Paul Brest, professor of law, emeritus and former dean, told me about Stanford Law’s plans to start a policy lab where students could get hands-on experience working on policy projects. I knew then that it was something I would be interested in and while I was at the IRS over the summer, I spoke with a number of IRS and Treasury officials about tax-related projects that Stanford Law students might be able to work on that would usefully contribute to the regulatory process. We settled on the Program-Related Investments project that is discussed in this magazine’s feature “Law and Policy Lab.”
The tax treatment of social investing turned out to be an area that was ripe for the participation of Stanford Law students. For one thing, Silicon Valley is home to many of the most active and creative social investors in the world, many of whom are in some way connected to the Stanford community. For another thing, the novelty of the practice means that the law and policy surrounding it are still catching up: Our group of seven students and one professor was able to interview key players and read the related literature in the short time frame of one quarter.
Thinking about how to improve PRI regulations requires a lot of the skills that I was exposed to last summer. The first step was to get our legal bearings, but the remaining steps were more unusual for a law school project. We interviewed practitioners to understand how social investors make decisions and how they interact with the tax code. In figuring out what to do with that information, we had to think about what optimal social investing behavior looks like from a policy perspective and what, if anything, can or should be done on the regulatory level to encourage that behavior.
Understanding the architecture of the legal system is crucial for anyone who wants to enact policy change. Giving law students the opportunity to actually put their understanding to work in the context of policy issues that they care about should be an indispensable part of legal education. I think that the Policy Lab is a great step toward making this a reality at Stanford. I hope that SLS continues and expands its support of students’ participation in policymaking on all levels and that students can gain valuable opportunities to simultaneously learn and move the needle in national policy conversations. SL