For Brant Hellwig LLM ’00, professor of tax law and the new faculty director of NYU Law’s Graduate Tax Program, the appeal of tax law lies in how, compared to some other areas of law, it is typically more focused on creation than opposition. Hellwig says he enjoys the mental challenge of working through taxation issues: “It’s closer to trying to solve a math problem or a logic problem. It’s less argumentative or confrontational, and the nature of the field is constructive.”
Former dean of Washington and Lee University School of Law and a former acting assistant professor at NYU Law, Hellwig has written prolifically on topics such as the income tax consequences of deferred compensation arrangements, the treatment of family-owned holding companies under the federal estate tax, and the tax advantage of founders’ stock. He has co-authored casebooks on business enterprise taxation, estate and gift taxation, and partnership taxation, and has taught the latter two topics, as well as basic income tax, corporate taxation, and the state law trusts and estates course.
Michelle Drumbl LLM ’02, interim dean at Washington and Lee University School of Law and Robert O. Bentley Professor of Law, took two of Hellwig’s classes during the year Hellwig spent teaching at NYU Law. Drumbl remembers his high levels of enthusiasm and preparation. She also lauds Hellwig’s performance as law school dean at Washington and Lee. “He has a good, big-picture strategic vision,” says Drumbl. “But I think his greatest strength is his ability to very genuinely and easily build interpersonal relationships with different stakeholders… Speaking as an alum of [the Graduate Tax Program], I think he’s a great choice to evaluate matters and make decisions that will…help sustain it and help it stay fresh and energetic…. I’m really excited to see what he’ll do for NYU.”
After growing up in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, Hellwig earned a bachelor’s in mathematical economics at Wake Forest University, then went straight on to Wake Forest University School of Law. He didn’t take a tax course until the latter part of his 2L year, at the urging of his father, an accountant. Hellwig liked it so much he took as many tax offerings as he could during his third year before receiving his JD in 1997.
Following two years as an associate focused on estate planning at Bell, Davis & Pitt in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Hellwig enrolled in NYU Law’s Graduate Tax Program. He did so in part to position himself for a potential academic career, although he considered that “a long shot.” At NYU, Hellwig’s instructors included Professor Noël Cunningham LLM ’75, Professor Laurie Malman ’71, and Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation Daniel Shaviro, all of whom still teach at the Law School today. The colloquium Shaviro co-teaches, the Tax Policy and Public Finance Colloquium, made a particular impression on Hellwig, with its array of visiting top tax scholars from around the country. “That was a unique curricular offering that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he says. “I really broadened my horizons taking that course.” He also worked with Ronald and Marilynn Grossman Professor of Taxation Emerita Deborah Schenk LLM ’76 as a student editor of the Tax Law Review.
Hellwig recalls the energy of the program and how the tax faculty’s offices were clustered in a particular part of Vanderbilt Hall’s fourth floor, where he would drop in regularly: “It was a great year professionally and personally.”
After graduation, Hellwig spent a year in Washington, DC, clerking for Judge Juan Vasquez LLM ’78 of the United States Tax Court. In 2001, Hellwig returned to NYU Law as an acting assistant professor in the Graduate Tax Program, where he taught Taxation of Property Transactions, Survey of Tax Procedure, and Estate and Gift Taxation that academic year. He enjoyed his role as a teacher and the opportunity to spend time in New York with his wife, Tammi, also an attorney, and their newborn daughter.
Among his students were several alumni of the University of South Carolina School of Law, which was seeking a tax professor. Hellwig’s students put him on their alma mater’s radar, and with NYU Law’s blessing, he took a tenure-track position there (joining F. Ladson Boyle LLM ’75 on the tax faculty). He spent the next decade at South Carolina, teaching a wide range of tax classes. His scholarship on estate and gift taxation led to the next phase in Hellwig’s academic career when he authored a casebook on the subject with Robert Danforth, John Lucian Smith, Jr. Memorial Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law. In 2012, Danforth persuaded Hellwig to join the Washington and Lee law faculty, where he again taught a broad range of subjects.
Three years into his time at Washington and Lee, Hellwig was appointed dean of the law school. While focusing on navigating the school through a challenging market for legal education, Hellwig also took a broader view that encompassed building morale and enthusiasm within the school. Hellwig knew all of the roughly 360 students by name and could greet them individually in the hallways, Danforth notes. During Friday flag football games on the law school’s lawn, he could be found flipping burgers on the grill.
“If I could have made him dean for life,” says Danforth, “I would have done so. He was just an excellent decision maker. He was very fair. He always had the interests of the students in mind, primarily—faculty as well, but he was really student-focused.”
Stepping down as dean in June 2021, Hellwig took a brief sabbatical and began his new role at NYU Law in January 2022. At Washington and Lee, his decanal duties limited the time he could devote to teaching. He notes: “I’m really excited about returning to the role of a full-time tax professor.” This semester, Hellwig will again be teaching Estate and Gift Taxation—exactly 20 years after he first taught it at NYU Law.
He says he looks forward as well to rediscovering New York along with Tammi, who will be working with the Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, and to visits from their two daughters, both now in college. Hellwig celebrated his return to New York on New Year’s Eve with a four-mile midnight run in Central Park with his family. While Hellwig enjoys running, he likes eating more. He anticipates exploring local restaurants that fly under the radar.
But leading the Graduate Tax Program is still foremost in Hellwig’s mind. He is eager to partner with the Tax Law Center at NYU Law, launched last year. Beyond that, he says, “I want to do everything I can in the faculty director role to continue to build a sense of energy and enthusiasm within the Graduate Tax Program, so that our students not only learn a great deal but also feel affirmed in their decision to come to NYU.”
“The ultimate measure of how we’re doing as a program is whether our alumni five, 10 years down the road look back and think, ‘Yes, my LLM from NYU made a difference,’” Hellwig adds. “That’s how I feel. I owe much to this school in terms of launching my teaching career. I’ve had a ton of positive experiences here, and it feels great to be back.”
Posted February 7, 2022