Karen Lee Hawkins
Director, Office of Professional Responsibility for the Commissioner of the IRS
The Long and Winding Road to Success
For Karen Lee Hawkins the journey to become director of the Office of Professional Responsibility for the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service has taken many turns and bends. She was doing graduate work at UMass Amherst when the university hired her to be the resident director of one of its residence halls for undergraduate women. A young woman herself, Karen was the youngest person ever hired for the position. Karen’s success at the residence hall “sparked an interest in higher education administration and the need to address the complexities of student life.”
After hiring issues at San Francisco State, which was in the midst of political turmoil, Karen applied for a job at Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. Only upon changing her resume to say that she was a college dropout was she accepted for her position. She became the first woman in the San Francisco Bay Area to interface directly with clients as a communications consultant at the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. Karen certainly paved the way for other women; by the time she left the phone company, about 50 percent of the communications consultants who interfaced with clients were women.
Eventually the University of California, Davis invited Karen to apply for the position of assistant dean of student affairs. Her work at U Mass integrating student housing had attracted the UC Davis administration. It was 1972 and UC Davis was beginning to address the concerns of minority students and the resulting protests. During Karen’s tenure at UC Davis, Congress passed Title IX, and she became a key participant on the UC Davis team to implement the new law. Karen participated in creating the campus’ first Women’s Center, and other programs to implement Title IX. As time went on, Karen continued to be interested in tax law.
“Thank goodness for Golden Gate,” Karen proclaims. “In 1976, other law schools did not even respond to my application.” At Golden Gate, though, the law school was actively recruiting women. Many of the women had backgrounds similar to her own; they had had successful careers, but had decided to become lawyers. Most of the men in her class were younger, having entered law school immediately after completing their college degrees, but had been unable to gain admission to first-tier law schools. She recalls that the women in her class were quite willing to challenge those male faculty members who made unthinking sexist comments. She was impressed that most professors listened and responded by taking more care with what they said.
Karen’s interest in tax law was sparked during her second year when she took the federal tax course with Professor Alan Cadgene. She recalls that before the classroom renovations in the ‘80s, law professors stood on a platform at the front of the classroom. “At least one time each class, Professor Cadgene would fall off the platform while expressing his enthusiasm for what you could do with the tax code.” During her second year at GGU, she joined the Tax Section of the American Bar Association, and eventually the Tax Section of the California Bar.
Since Golden Gate had not yet started what is now a highly successful LLM Tax program, Karen earned an MBA in Taxation from Golden Gate’s School of Tax while working full-time as a lawyer at the Touche Ross accounting firm. While the large corporate law firms were not especially interested in Golden Gate graduates, the accounting firms were eager to hire law graduates with tax training.
Karen was the first woman lawyer in the CPA firm’s San Francisco tax department. “Working at Touche Ross was a fabulous experience.” The accounting firm recognized the practical skills Karen brought with her, based on her Golden Gate education, as well as her experience at UC Davis and at the phone company. Still, after four years at Touche Ross, Karen decided to open her own law office.
A year after leaving Touche, Karen ran into William E. Taggart Jr., whom she had known at Golden Gate where he was assistant dean of the MBA-Tax and MS-Tax programs and was working to get the LLM Tax program accredited. Taggart was the first dean of the LLM Tax program and remains dean emeritus. In 1984 Karen joined Berger & Taggart and about two years later the firm was renamed Taggart & Hawkins.
Karen’s career as a tax lawyer has been as exceptional as her convoluted path getting there. She was the 1995-1996 chair of the Taxation Section of the State Bar of California and only the second woman chair in twenty years. After serving in a variety of leadership capacities with the American Bar Association Section of Taxation, she was selected by her peers as chair-elect of the section for the year commencing July 2009.
In 1995 Karen, with the support of Tax Court Judge Stephen Swift, designed and implemented an extremely successful pro se pro bono tax court program, which links experienced tax lawyers who are willing to provide pro bono legal assistance with litigants who represent themselves (pro se litigants) in tax court. This innovative program and it's success earned Karen 2004 the ABA Section of Taxation “Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year.”
As director of the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, Karen has found yet another calling. “The potential of that office has not been fully explored. The focus has been on ‘road kill’ - the easy cases of tax practitioners who are non-filers.” Karen would like to focus on conduct that “really harms the public and the system.”