Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits
by Lesley Rosenthal
(John Wiley & Sons 2012)
As I embarked on writing Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, well-meaning and concerned folks cited at least three reasons why no one had written such a book before, and (implicitly) why I shouldn’t try: it’s too dangerous, too hard, too scary.
The “too-dangerous” crowd, personified by some of the most successful leaders of nonprofit turnarounds on several continents, worried that legal information in non-lawyers’ hands would result in the unlicensed practice of law by a bunch of irresponsible, budget-strapped do-it-yourself nonprofiteers. Who knows what kinds of mission mischief non-lawyers would make with their newfound knowledge – the legal equivalent of sewing your own sutures! Fortunately my own boss, the President of Lincoln Center, and several of my other mentors before him, including a former Bar Association president and a federal judge, helped forge my conviction that the law belongs to the people. They encouraged my desire to put it into plain English for all to know.
The “too-hard” folks, also well meaning, recognized the enormous variety of laws that commonly arise in nonprofits and thought it impossible to provide a general overview in one volume. I know what they meant: the tangle of specialized state and federal laws that make our sector one of the most highly regulated in the whole economy, such as state nonprofit corporations laws, Section 501(c) of the internal revenue code, IRS rules, regulations and expectations surrounding the tax exemption and good governance, multi-level filing and disclosure requirements, pension, endowment and investment laws, lobbying restrictions, and a web of 50 different states’ fundraising laws. Many fine books have been written on each of these subjects, but rare is the legal resource that touches upon them all. Then, the skeptics continued, there are also general business laws that apply to these organizations – contract law, labor and employment laws, intellectual property laws, consumer regulatory laws, real estate laws, building codes and more. And business laws apply to the nonprofit sector in weird ways not necessarily intended by lawmakers, forcing volunteer-driven organizations, for example, to think long and hard about how to structure their activities to comply with minimum wage and hours laws. Pile on top of all of those layers the additional specialized laws that apply to the wide world of nonprofits, such as FDA regs for blood banks, student privacy laws for higher ed, permitting and accreditation for hospitals and mental health facilities and so on, and the whole enterprise of writing a book about the legal context of nonprofits threatens to die under its own weight.
The “too-scary” people are the most sympathetic people of all. They are the good-hearted lawyers who are already serving as counsel, as board members – or as both simultaneously – to nonprofit organizations. Their values may line up perfectly with the mission of the organization they serve – an elder care lawyer, for example, serving on the board of a community-based senior center, a real estate lawyer counseling a neighborhood development organization, a sports and entertainment lawyer doing board duty on her town’s local Little League or scout troop – but their legal expertise may be far afield of the legal issues facing the organization. It scares them to no end when a legal question arises in the boardroom and all eyes turn toward them. UBIT – what’s that? Conflict of interest policy pertaining to co-investment interests? Ugh. Section 501(h) election for lobbying activities? Isn’t this meeting almost over? They could have just begged off answering these questions – that’s not my area of law, you see, you wouldn’t ask a dermatologist about your chest pains, would you? – if only Good Counsel didn’t exist to connect the dots between the law they do know and the law they need to know to better serve their favorite charity.
Good Counsel is intended – charitably – to defy all three objections. In 300 pages it places the law of nonprofits in the hands of board members that oversee and executives that actually run the organizations – CEOs, CFOs, program managers and staff, fundraisers, personnel directors, communications professionals, operations and facilities managers and more. Does it answer every question? No. Does it sensitize non-lawyers to common legal issues in the highly regulated context in which they operate? I sure hope so.
Lawyers who make their living practicing in this field needn’t worry that this one volume will displace them; to the contrary, placed in the right hands, the book will generate more sophisticated questions and ultimately more and better client relationships. Corporate and transactional lawyers who have not yet found an outlet for their volunteer yearnings – because it seems that most pro bono projects are more aligned with the skills of litigators, not business lawyers – may feel empowered to see how readily they can translate what they know to the legal needs of prospective nonprofit corporate clients.
Law school deans concerned about the criticism being leveled at the entire enterprise of legal education may find a path forward in Good Counsel. With case studies, work plans and focus questions following each chapter, the book lays out a path for law students supervised by clinical professors to engage with a particular nonprofit organization and assess its legal needs – growing the students’ legal skills and stretching their capacities as counselors in ways that will serve them well even if they do end up in private practice after graduation, as most do.
And the legal profession, which despite the canon of lawyer jokes is as public-spirited as any I know, may find that Good Counsel can be used to foster and strengthen more pro bono relationships between lawyers and organizations. There is a great deal of goodwill for nonprofit organizations among public-spirited lawyers. I know, because I have been both a purveyor and voracious consumer of pro bono legal services, that there is more time and willingness to serve among the legal profession than has been fully tapped to date. A pilot program of the New York State Bar Association and the New York Attorney General’s Office Charities Bureau has adopted Good Counsel as a training resource for that very purpose: to help launch up to 50 new pro bono relationships between lawyers and charities in the initial pilot year of a program called Charity Corps: Lawyers Helping Nonprofits.
Far too many of our nation’s one million public charities lack regular access to counsel. At the same time, good-hearted lawyers are floundering in their efforts to help their favorite nonprofits, or are afraid to try because they think the field is so distant from subject matter they know. Law students graduate in debt up to their ears but lacking the practical skills they need to begin servicing clients after law school. Good Counsel is a playbook, intended for all three audiences.
And while I admit it was a little hard, scary and dangerous, ultimately there were far more supporters than skeptics for this project. I invite readers – lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and academics – to take a look and let me know if it works.
Schedule of upcoming Good Counsel events in NYC, LA, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, DC and Buffalo, NY available on www.facebook.com/GoodCounselBook or at the book’s website, www.goodcounselbook.com.
Available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com/dp/1118084047/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
Review copies for academics, media, upon request to firstname.lastname@example.org