Q&A: Shailana Dunn-Wall ('20) - Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship

Shailana is pictured in a headshot with long brown hair and wearing a purple blazer. She is smiling at the camera.

by Madison Zucco

Shailana Dunn-Wall (’20) is a Nebraska Law alumna and is currently working for Legal Aid of Nebraska as a tax attorney. She was awarded the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship to support her work at Legal Aid. Legal Aid of Nebraska is a local non-profit law firm that has provided services in the areas of Children and Families, Debt and Financing, Housing, and Income and Benefits for over 50 years. 

What led you to become interested in tax law?

I didn't expect to like tax law, but I knew I wanted to do more transactional law than litigation, so I took Individual Income Tax the beginning of my 2L year. I liked the class, I thought because I was interested in policy, but then one day Professor Thimmesch said something along the lines of, "If you like what we do today, you like tax," and I left that class really energized.  I like how tax is so broad – it encompasses almost everything, whether we realize it or not.  It's how a lot of government policies are implemented.  Knowing how the tax system works is like a giant puzzle, and it opens a lot of doors.   

The Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship is a nationally competitive program developed to foster an interest in tax-related public service among those individuals who participate and advance efforts to create a fairer and more equitable tax system. How did you find out about this fellowship and what prompted you to apply?

I had spoken to someone at Legal Aid of Nebraska about a pro bono research project and I mentioned to her that I was interested in tax.  Legal Aid of Nebraska has the only low-income tax clinic (LITC) in the state, and so the attorney I was doing research for mentioned my interest in non-profit and tax to Shirley Peng, the director of the LITC.  She had gotten an email about the fellowship earlier that day and thought it sounded like a good fit for me.  Since they knew about my interest, they emailed me about the fellowship and it sounded like the best post-graduate opportunity I could hope for, given my interests, so I worked with Legal Aid to apply.   

What advice would you give to students who are in the process of applying for nationally competitive fellowships, internships, and other opportunities?

Don't be afraid to reach for it.  It can be really intimidating to apply for things that are competitive, but the worst that can happen is that you don't get it and gained some experience in trying.  

What aspects from your time at the UNL College of Law have prepared you for your work with Legal Aid?

UNL has a really good tax program. I did a Program of Concentrated Study in tax and I learned a lot about how to be a tax attorney and how to use the tax code through that.   

What specific highlights and challenges do you face as a tax attorney for Legal Aid?

I really like being able to work with clients who need the most help – tax issues affect everyone, regardless of income, but most people can afford an attorney when they have a complex tax issue.  However, a lot of very low-income people get audited, and those people can't afford an attorney.  When that happens (or any other of a long list of tax issues) I feel lucky that I can help people to understand their situation and help them communicate with the IRS.  It can be scary to get a letter from the IRS as a person with a law degree, so imagine how it feels for someone who has a high school diploma or someone for whom English isn't a first language.  It's exponentially scarier, and those are a lot of the people that Legal Aid helps.    

What are some surprising aspects of tax law that you think others would be interested in?

I encourage anyone who is interested in non-profit work, income inequality and/or poverty to read a little about the earned income tax credit (EITC) (or reach out to me and ask!). It's a program through our tax system that helps low and middle-income families make ends meet, and it is so impactful for the families who are recipients.  The program only has participation by about 80% of eligible families and it's one of my personal goals to do everything I can to increase this number.   

What advice would you give current law students who are interested in a career in tax law?  

Reach out to tax professionals and ask questions!  Everyone knows tax is hard and one of the benefits of that is that every tax pro I've met is so kind and willing to assist people who are interested in joining the field. In tax (or any other field) it never hurts to ask someone with the job you want how they got there and what they would recommend.   

Attorneys who may be interested in doing pro bono tax work for Legal Aid of Nebraska can email Shirley Peng at speng@legalaodofnebraska.org to get involved.

You can find more information about the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship here. Applications for the 2022-24 fellowship class are due on September 13, 2021. 

Madison Zucco is an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has worked as an intern at the University of Nebraska College of Law and as a community volunteer for the Tenant Assistance Project. Madison hopes to study environmental law after graduation.