Great Teachers: Understand the Concept to Understand the Law

November 3, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

Great teaching is at the heart of a great university, and Avi O. Liveson is among The Princeton Review’s The Best 300 Professors (Random House 2012) selected from among 42,000 submissions and 1,000 semifinalists nationwide.

greatTeacherLIVESONName: Avi O. Liveson

College: Hunter College

Title: Professor of Contract Law

Focus: “I have taught for over 20 years, but each semester is fresh and new things keep coming up in class. It’s been great.”

Tom offers to sell his jacket to Sally for $50. Simple, right? But what if Ellen offers Tom more after Sally says OK? What if Tom changes his mind? Does it matter that nothing is in writing? What if Tom lied about the jacket’s material?

Hypotheticals are one way that professor Avi O. Liveson makes his Hunter College contract law class entertaining for sophomores. “Business law may sound boring, but it’s fun to teach,” he says.

So is tax law. Well, he admits, “I don’t know if it’s fun for the entire world, but it has principles and is supposed to hang together. You place the student in a situation. Say you found $50 on the sidewalk, or Uncle Harry gave you a $500 gift. Are they taxable? One is and one isn’t, but why? If the doctor tells you to eat organic food because of allergies, is your grocery bill deductible? If some results seem illogical or unfair, I tell students to blame Congress, not me.”

Most juniors and seniors taking his tax law class are preparing for government or business jobs or the certified public accountant (CPA) licensing exam. “At the college level you don’t get into technical detail,” he says. “You can spend more time on the fun parts.”

Liveson earned a University of Pennsylvania law degree after a Brandeis University bachelor’s. “I found courses like constitutional law murky, but tax law was clear, though it can be complex and certain areas can drive you insane.”

He practiced tax law for a few years, edited at the Journal of Taxation and then got his break – adjuncting at Hunter. He asked the since-retired program director to consider him if a full-time slot opened up “and got lucky” in 1986.

“Hunter students are sharp and the diversity is wonderful,” Liveson says. “Many students are the first in their family to go to college. I have taught for over 20 years, but each semester is fresh and new things keep coming up in class. It’s been great.”

Mariestela Alvarez, a junior economics major planning a career in finance, says she “wasn’t that excited about business law, because the only law I knew was ‘Law and Order.’ But that first day I fell in love with the class because professor Liveson made it fun. He wants you to participate. He begins each class with a review of the last lesson, which is useful for people who didn’t completely understand it. And he knows that students might have classes before his and their minds might be elsewhere, so he’ll tell a funny story to refresh you.”

Liveson’s research concentrates on taxation of partnerships. In 1999 he and some CUNY colleagues founded Park Avenue CPA Review, a CPA-test-preparation company. He is a consulting editor at the Research Institute of America and has participated in IRS training programs.

Off-the-shelf tax software has cut into CPAs’ tax-preparation billings but, he says, “accounting is not in danger of becoming a dinosaur. If there’s anything at all sophisticated, you need to know what you’re doing. You’re in danger using software if you don’t know the concepts.”

And concepts are what it’s all about in the classroom. “A topic may be 18 pages in a textbook, but you’ve got to boil it down to its essence to have a good discussion. It’s like chipping away at a large block to make sculpture.”