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William C. Altreuter
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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Walking over to judge last night's Mugel rounds I thought about tax law, trying to get myself in the right head. Tax is what UB used to be known for, and was, actually, the only upper level required course. The dilemma back then was who to take: there were three choices, and each had merit. Bill Greiner, who later went on to become president of the university, taught a section that was popularly known as "Tax for Poets". If you were utterly cowed by the notion of tax, his class was a good choice. Ken Joyce, a jovial Irishman from Boston was the middle road: a leading scholar in the field, Professor Joyce was (and remains) a great favorite with the students-- personable, funny, and a great explainer. If you were a serious tax jock, though, you opted for Louis DelCotto's class. Professor DelCotto and Professor Joyce taught both Tax I and Tax II, and beyond that lay DelCotto's Corporate Tax, a heady realm where only the most dedicated acolytes dared venture. Although he was a stimulating and lucid lecturer, it was understood that the people who took Professor DelCotto's class were serious about the field, likely to go into it, and uncowed by his reputation as a tougher grader than Professor Joyce. He did not suffer fools, but could be patient if he saw that an effort was being made.

He was a hell of a guy, Professor DelCotto, dead nearly a year now. I knew that Tax was never going to be something I would ever be able to do, but since he was one of the superstars at the school, I figured I should sign up for his section. "Nobody ever did as well in my class understanding it as poorly as you did," he told me once. He meant it as a complement, and I took it that way. I was through with Tax, but I was a student representative to the faculty and we had occasion to hoist a few from time to time. Listening to his lectures, I thought last night, was like watching Penn and Teller. He could show me the trick, and I'd be amazed. Then he'd show me how it was done, and I'd be impressed-- but I would still never be able to do it myself, or probably even be able to explain it.

With the benefit of one round behind me, and a journal article I'd found, I felt like I had a handle on the problem last night. Professor Joyce's bench brief was a good example of his pellucid exposition, and I found myself actually thinking, for a moment, that I had a handle on the issues. Actually, I felt the way I used to in Professor DelCotto's class, and I remembered what he'd told me about my Tax chops. Sitting here writing this, I'm not so clear that I could describe for you what the hell the case was about. The taxability of contingent fees in non-bodily injury cases is all I remember, and Qualified Settlement Funds. Lou DelCotto could make an elephant disapear, then show you the mirrors, and the trick was equally impressive either way. Either way I just find myself sitting there thinking, "Huh. Elephant. No elephant. Elephant. No elephant".

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