I often get asked about my work, especially by young law students and lawyers, but also by others looking for a meaningful profession. Some are attracted by what they perceive to be the money and respect associated with being an attorney combined with the social good (or saving grace) associated with working for nonprofits. Others look to position themselves to be able to effect change in a particular area (e.g., social justice, women’s rights, environment, education).
When asked what led me to this work, I start by pointing to a singular event: laying off all my coworkers at large branch of a global retailer where I was the operations manager. This made me rethink and ultimately reject the familiar platitude “work to live, don’t live to work.” I wanted to find a job that was meaningful and an expression of my identity. Having been blessed with circumstances that allowed me to pursue this goal, two graduate degrees and several jobs later, I started my law practice focused on serving nonprofit organizations on January 1, 2005.
So, what does an attorney for nonprofits do? I certainly can’t speak for all of my peers whose practices vary widely, but I represent mostly 501(c)(3) charitable organizations on corporate and tax matters. On a given day, I may work on matters for 5-10 clients, doing things like counseling executives through compliance issues, reviewing or drafting governance documents and contracts, preparing tax-exemption applications, structuring mergers and collaborations, advising on operational issues and strategies, and working though earned income – unrelated business issues. The missions of our clients vary widely: education, social justice, health, environment, arts, religion, international poverty relief, social services, children, animal welfare, scientific research, disaster relief, etc. So, while I may regularly work on certain types of matters repetitively (e.g., reviewing bylaws), there are always unique situations and interesting people to work with, and my expertise grows with each client. Because we regularly work with the 90% of nonprofits that are smaller or medium-sized organizations without in-house counsel, it also means a lot of teaching, which I love.
Apart from client work, I also find it very rewarding to write and present to audiences on a wide variety of legal issues affecting nonprofits and social enterprises and to teach nonprofit law at a local university. These activities also keep me sharp as they require that I continually read, attend seminars and conferences, and learn about my practice area and trends affecting the sector. They also allow me to be creative as I pursue my passion of finding how to engage audiences in unique, effective and fun ways. Providing pro bono counsel, serving on boards, and performing other community services further enrich my professional life.
On top of all of this, I must of course run a business and think about finances, employees, marketing, and an array of other matters every small business owner must manage. While it’s great to be in control of my business and career, managing is also the most challenging part of my job and why I sometimes entertain the thought of combining with another practice and giving up that role. For now, that's an unlikely prospect because I value the ability to create a unique work environment that emphasizes professional and personal growth equally with client service (and above profit maximization) in a manner that may not be possible in another firm. When those conditions are matched with an amazing person, I know first-hand wonderful things are possible (thank you, Emily). I believe in the values of a B Corporation and am proud to be a member of the social business community.
As satisfying as I find my job, there are drawbacks to working in a very small firm, which some will find more significant than others. The collegial and team-oriented atmosphere of working in a more populated workplace with common goals is missing. Also, we do not regularly engage in cutting-edge research and advocacy on what may or may not be permissible under the law, which big firm attorneys with large institutional clients may find is a satisfying part of their practice. In addition, as outside counsel, we are removed from more directly experiencing the ultimate impact of our work.
For me, the drawbacks are minor compared to the benefits of being able to (i) shape our firm and the ways we serve our clients and our community, (ii) determine the nature of my job and workday, and (iii) develop more meaningful relationships with my coworkers. And because I trust that we know how to work to bring value to our clients and strengthen their abilities to make the world a better place, providing counsel to many clients serving in a variety of ways is, for me, even more rewarding than working for a single organization. It also frees me up to write, speak, teach, and reach out to other organizations and individuals in ways that otherwise might not be possible. Most importantly, working within a small firm allows me to provide these same opportunities to my coworkers.