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Faculty Spotlight: Philip Hackney, JD, LLM on Tax Law and the Value of Legal Education

Faculty Spotlight: Philip Hackney, JD, LLM on Tax Law and the Value of Legal Education

Headshot of Pitt Law Professor Philip Hackney

University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor of Law Philip Hackney teaches courses on tax law and contracts for both Pitt Law’s Juris Doctor (JD) and graduate online programs. He also serves as the faculty editor for the Pittsburgh Tax Review, a faculty-led, student-edited journal on the cutting edge of issues relating to tax law and policy. His tax law specialty is tax exempt organizations, which includes section 501(c)(3) and charitable organizations.

His enthusiasm for the law and tax law in particular is palpable. “Not many people, I find, really love law school, but I loved it. I felt at home in the law. And this is probably even stranger to most people’s ears, but when I took tax law I found my family. I love tax law,” said Professor Hackney.

Read on to discover why Professor Hackney is an in-demand writer and speaker for media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNN, ABC, and more.

Finding a Passion for Tax Law

Professor Hackney attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, for his undergraduate education, majoring in political science. “I was really interested in political theory and how it is that we govern ourselves. It has always resonated very strongly with me that we organize ourselves in ways that give honor to each of us. This idea impacts my scholarship today, which focuses on building laws and a legal and social order that honors each individual in a democratic way,” he said.

Although he considered continuing his education to become a political science professor, Professor Hackney instead returned to his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., to open a used and rare bookstore, Caliban’s Books, with his roommate from college. This was his focus for seven years, but after he and his wife had their first child, Professor Hackney decided it was time to pursue a new career path to better support his growing family. Next stop, law school.

Professor Hackney attended Louisiana State University (LSU) to pursue his JD degree. LSU’s law program teaches both civil and common law, making it one of the few jurisdictions in the country that teaches both of the world’s legal systems. Here, he would fall in love with tax law.

“For me, tax law is making micro political decisions with every little choice that the law makes,” he said. “Tax law is literally shaping how we run our lives. It gives incentives and disincentives to act, which ends up shaping the way our communities are developed.”

While in law school, Professor Hackney always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to teach, but he had to get his feet wet in the professional world before pursuing a professorship. After graduating from LSU, he clerked for a federal judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Shreveport, La.

After clerking, Professor Hackney worked for Baker Botts LLP in Houston, Texas. There, he cut his teeth on forming partnerships for corporations, doing public company offerings of debt and securities, and investigating accounting irregularities. However, the life of a corporate attorney wasn’t exactly sustainable. After a time, he decided to focus once again on tax law, attending New York University School of Law to earn his Master of Laws (LLM) degree in Tax. In New York, he connected with people at the apex of tax and policy. During this time, he also found what would become his specialty—tax exempt organizations.

The Pathway to Pitt Law

While at NYU, Professor Hackney was connected by his mentor to the principal legal advisor to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), who advised leadership on all aspects of exempt organizations and later the enactment and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. This connection, in turn, led him to work for the IRS for five years, making tax policy at the highest level.

However, as much as he loved his work at the IRS, Professor Hackney still wanted to teach. This led him back to his alma mater, LSU, where he worked as a faculty member for seven years.

During his time at LSU, Professor Hackney found media success. “For whatever reason, tax-exempt organizations are sexy from a news perspective,” he said. This success prompted him to think more about the broader vision for his career. He wanted to be on the scene in a larger sense, which was why he ultimately decided to accept an offer of a faculty position at Pitt Law.

Professor Hackney viewed the move to Pittsburgh as an opportunity to speak as his most authentic self. “To me, being authentically who I am means to speak in a social sense, and into a larger community rather than just keeping to myself. And I like modeling that for others as well,” he said. “Being closer to the east coast and becoming part of an institution that is respected in the way Pitt is became something that was exciting to me.”

Communicating the Importance of Tax Law

When asked why tax law is important for folks in non-JD legal programs, Professor Hackney replied, “Tax law is as fundamental as math and writing to being in business law.”

“If you’re working in business law and you don’t understand the tax consequences, you’re absolutely blind,” he continued. “It’s not that you have to understand every aspect of being a tax lawyer. That’s really complicated stuff. But you have to understand the places where you need to ask questions.”

To help teach tax law concepts to his students and the public alike, Professor Hackney aims to communicate effectively with everyone. “One of the reasons I end up on so many media platforms is because I enjoy making these topics make sense to a real world audience,” he said.

Professor Hackney continued, “If we as academics are not talking to people who can understand this information on the street, if we’re not talking to our mother, our father, our kids, about why these things matter, then what we’re studying ends up not having much of an impact.”

Opening Up Legal Studies Through the Online MSL Program

In his classes at Pitt Law, Professor Hackney knows his students are knowledgeable professionals in their own domains. His aim in teaching them is to “make the law comprehensible, understandable, and usable.” He communicates the key information that students need to make informed decisions in their everyday lives and work.

For his online courses, Professor Hackney spends a considerable amount of time thinking about how to teach effectively in a virtual environment. Much of what makes learning engaging online is providing the right amount of information and asking the right questions. He wants to help his students learn to ask questions that will help them spark their own understanding.

Professor Hackney serves on the board of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, which was founded by Maxine Crump. “She is the most important mentor I’ve ever had in my life, and continues to be someone that I go to on a regular basis whenever I’m dealing with something that’s really hard,” he said. The organization hosts conversations about race over six, two-hour sessions through short readings and with two facilitators. “I facilitate these conversations on race. And that’s where I really learned the power of questions, because the fundamental thing becomes that question you ask.”

This experience translates into Professor Hackney’s teaching. “If I tell you something, it’s not going to do anything for you. But if I can get you to ask that question, that’s the space where there’s a spark that goes off within you, where you fundamentally understand this thing in a new way, in a profound way.”

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“If there’s anything that I leave my students with, it’s the questions that they should be asking rather than the material that I give to them,” he continued. “Because the material that I give to them is going to change,” he said. “But the questions that we’re asking remain the same regardless. I’m hopefully pointing to the fundamental questions they’re going to need to ask themselves in the future. And I think I’m doing that in the classes I built, and I think we’re doing that as a whole in the MSL and certificate programs.”

Forge Ahead With Pitt Law

If you’ve been unsure of what legal studies can do for you, or if the law seems daunting, Professor Hackney wants you to know that you will bring incredible value to the program, and that you will enrich the Pitt Law community. “You are ready. Breathe. You absolutely can do it,” he said.

Interested in learning from Professor Hackney and the other members of Pitt Law’s accomplished faculty? Consider what Pitt Law’s Online Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program or certificate programs can do for you.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor to learn more.