At some point, every nonprofit needs a lawyer.
Whether negotiating complex government contracts, navigating federal laws or avoiding financial pitfalls, a firm legal footing can be valuable.
And while nonprofits generally can’t pay as well as attorneys working for corporations or prestigious law firms, many see the appeal of working in a position where they can help people and broaden their experience in the human services sector. As groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union file legal challenges against President Donald Trump’s administration, some attorneys are looking to bring their legal skills to social services organizations as an antidote to the political environment. And for others, it’s simply a way of giving back to their communities.
Helping improve New Yorkers’ lives drew Elise Zealand to join social services nonprofit Leake & Watts in April. She said that the pay is lower, but the “happiness quotient is so high.” Zealand had some pro bono experience and had worked with children and families, but her primary previous work had been as general counsel for white-shoe law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and as general counsel of a media firm.
“You can start to feel like you’re protecting capital, you’re moving money around, but you’re not making a difference in people’s lives,” she said.
Leake & Watts – which runs juvenile justice, early childhood education, special education, residential treatment and other programs – has a budget of more than $100 million and nearly 1,500 employees. Alan Mucatel, its executive director, said the organization had effective attorneys, but as it has ballooned in size, the risks inherent in handling contracts, employment and labor issues as well as navigating potential insurance costs made it necessary to enlist someone with a “legal lens” to avoid potential landmines.
He said it ultimately was a “tremendous relief” to have someone managing day-to-day engagement with legal issues, giving him more time for programming and development. “The role of a CEO is very, very broad, and that is maybe some of the fun, is to get to know a little bit of information about a lot of different things,” he said. “But it also is one of the stressors of the work – that you’re being pushed or pulled in many different directions and you’re often wondering if you’re able to give something the attention that it deserves.”
Two-thirds of the organizations reporting a general counsel had a budget of at least $10 million, according to a survey of the New York City area recently released by the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York. Sectorwide, they earned a median of $131,107. In general, the typical compensation for a general counsel across the New York area ranges from roughly $130,000 to $350,000, according to PayScale.
The competition for counsel positions at public interest firms is stiff. Zealand said the public interest landscape is surprisingly competitive because there are many lawyers at private firms seeking to make that shift, and few spots available.
For Zealand’s position, there were 170 applicants, which were eventually whittled down to 13 people who had experience with government, private firms or as litigators, Mucatel said.
“There are so many smart people in the legal profession who are looking for opportunities that both stretch them, and also looking for opportunities … to have the kind of impact you can in a role like this, at an organization like ours,” Mucatel said.
Michael Williams, who has been the general counsel at Safe Horizon for about a decade, agreed. Safe Horizon is the country’s largest nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence, youth homelessness, sex abuse and other crimes. It has roughly 135 government contracts.
“There’s tons of lawyers out there that want to do good in the world and especially in this day and age,” Williams said.
“I feel that I can help make sure that we deliver services with minimum risk because it’s really important to not put the resources of the organization at stake,” he added. “We want to use our money to help people – not to fix problems, or defend lawsuits, or any of those things.”
While employing a general counsel may not supersede the occasional need for outside firms that specialize in issues like zoning or procurement, having someone on staff versed in legal issues does speed those conversations.
In one recent example, Safe Horizon’s legal office helped negotiate a recent project in which the agency partnered with the New York City Police Department to place 157 victims’ advocates in police precincts across the city over three years. He said that it also was helpful when city government required all domestic violence shelters to be covered by a contract and, because of Safe Horizon’s size and resources, they were in a good position to negotiate changes to the contracts, which weren’t necessarily favorable to the organization.
“We are able to get reasonable terms that are appropriate for the organization and we don’t have to put the organization at risk by having them agree to terms that are not going to work,” Williams said.
The Children’s Aid Society’s most recent general counsel, Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, arrived from the New York City Department of Education in 2016. The nonprofit has had someone holding the position since 2008. The organization’s President and CEO Phoebe Boyer said the need for counsel was an indication of how complicated nonprofits can be.
“We are running very complex organizations and there are many legal issues that come up for us every day,” she said. “It’s just in the course of business.”
Ironically, some of the most effective benefits to having someone on staff aren’t necessarily apparent; it’s only the lack of legal issues that arise. Boyer said the organization needed to be proactive when considering launching a new program, starting a contract or engaging a subcontractor.
“Traditionally I think people have used pro bono counsel or outside counsel, and that’s a little bit more reactive: A problem emerges, you seek counsel for something,” she said. “And I think the reality for an entity like us is we need to be a little bit more proactive.”
But not everyone can afford an attorney. For nonprofits that need legal help but can’t afford to have an in-house lawyer, there are other options. Most nonprofits have lawyers on an ad hoc basis, enlist pro bono help or get aid from a practicing board member. Having a lawyer serving on an organization’s board of directors is also key, Williams said.
The Lawyers Alliance for New York also offers free assistance, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest offers a “pro bono clearinghouse” that connects nonprofits with a network of free lawyers. Marnie Berk, director of pro bono programs for NYLPI, said that while New York has had a healthy pro bono culture, there’s been a call to action for attorneys to redouble their attention since the presidential election to issues like immigration, the environment and more. Some attorneys might change their career goals to do more advocacy, echoing an inflection point that happened after the September 11, 2001, attacks as well, when attorneys felt moved and gravitated to working in the public interest.
But while there were masses of attorneys helping immigrants at local airports in January when Trump declared a travel ban on passengers from several majority-Muslim nations, Berk said it’s been somewhat of a challenge when converting those large constitutional issues into keeping people interested in the day-to-day issues without feeling burned out.
For now, many lawyers are motivated, and nonprofits with a vital cause can benefit. “I think that for lawyers who are paying a certain kind of attention to what’s gone on post-election,” Berk said, “they’re quite alarmed with some of the very early things that came out of the administration that are real challenges to the rule of law.”
Editor's note: This article was changed to clarify Marnie Berk's quote.