Bernard Wolfman: 1924–2011
A Renowned Scholar and Magnificent Teacher
Bernard Wolfman, a renowned scholar of tax law and the Fessenden Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School, died Aug. 20, 2011. One of the pre-eminent tax professors in the United States, Wolfman clarified the world of tax law for generations of lawyers through his teaching and scholarship. He was also a leading expert in the ethics and rules of professional responsibility for lawyers.
“His contributions to tax and ethics, and his devoted teaching and mentoring of students and younger colleagues, will long endure, as will his distinguished public interest advocacy and service to the profession,” wrote Dean Martha Minow in a statement to the HLS community.
Wolfman, whose principal scholarly interests were federal income taxation and the professional responsibility of tax practitioners, began his teaching career in 1963 at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was a professor, and then dean from 1970 to 1975. He joined the HLS faculty in 1976 as the Fessenden Professor of Law, becoming professor emeritus in 2007. During his career, he also taught law as a visiting professor at New York University and the University of Michigan.
In a tribute in the Summer 2007 Bulletin, Howard Abrams ’80, one of Wolfman’s former students, now a tax professor at Emory University School of Law, called Wolfman “a magnificent teacher and a master of the Socratic method,” adding, “The Socratic method can impose harsh demands, but Bernie was not at all harsh; on the contrary, he was kind and treated us kindly both inside and outside the classroom. For those of us who teach tax, Professor Wolfman is our ideal.”
Throughout his years as a professor, Wolfman remained active as a practitioner, consulting with law firms, large accounting firms and the government. In 2003, he served as senior adviser to the assistant attorney general for the Tax Division, U.S. Department of Justice. He was a consultant on tax policy with the U.S. Treasury Department from 1963 to 1968 and again from 1977 to 1980.
A prolific writer, he penned dozens of articles, essays, and commentaries. His four books include “Dissent Without Opinion: The Behavior of Justice William O. Douglas in Federal Tax Cases” (1975).
Wolfman received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, earning an A.B. in political science in 1946 and a J.D. in 1948.
Prior to his academic career, he practiced law for 15 years in Philadelphia at the firm of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen, serving as the firm’s managing partner from 1961 to 1963.
He was also noted for his civil liberties and civil rights work. As a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union, he did preparatory work for what became a landmark school-prayer case, Abington School Dist. v. Schempp (1963). He would later criticize President Ronald Reagan for granting tax exemptions to racially segregated schools.
A consultant for 20 years to the American Law Institute’s Federal Income Tax Project, he made recommendations for structural legislative change. He also served as special consultant to Iran/Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh.
He was a member of the Council of the American Bar Association Section of Taxation and council director of its committees on Corporate Tax, Standards of Tax Practice, and Tax Policy and Simplification. He also served on the Council of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. President of the Federal Tax Institute of New England and a fellow of the ABA, he was also a fellow of the American College of Tax Counsel, serving for six years as its regent from the 1st Circuit.