Lesley Rosenthal has the kind of job a lot of lawyers would kill for: She is the general counsel, vice president, and secretary of New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Inc. A former litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and a violinist herself, Rosenthal (at right) arrived at the center in 2005, just in time to help oversee its $1.2 billion redevelopment project.
In the following post—based in part on her book Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits (Wiley 2012)—Rosenthal gives us the scoop on how lawyers can parlay their firm experience into a job in the nonprofit sector.
How to Get That Nonprofit Job
By Lesley Rosenthal
America’s 1 million charities represent a gorgeous array of goodness. They lead efforts to cure diseases, alleviate poverty, advance education, and ennoble through culture.
But what people don't realize is that these nonprofits tend to have a tiny or nonexistent legal team. That was the case with every nonprofit I've worked with. From the modern dance company I helped out as a fledgling attorney, the child care advocacy organization I served when its outside pro bono counsel suddenly passed away, to the foundation of one of the greatest violinists in history and the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation—the total number of in-house counsel in each organization had been binary: zero or one.
When I arrived at Lincoln Center (I heard about the job from a mentor of mine at Paul Weiss), the legal department of the world’s largest and most comprehensive performing arts center consisted of just me and an executive assistant. When friends asked me how big Lincoln Center’s staff of lawyers was, I would look myself up and down and joke, “Oh, around five-foot-five!”
That's not at all unusual: Of the nation’s charitable organizations, only a minuscule fraction has regular access to counsel, whether in-house or outside, paid or voluntary. Unless the organization has an unusually high-risk profile or is particularly savvy about legal matters, it is unusual to put an attorney in charge of the organization’s legal affairs.
Until now. Tectonic shifts in the nonprofit landscape are persuading directors and senior executives that it is necessary and desirable to bring on counsel to oversee the organization’s legal function. Outside or in-house, paid or volunteer, there should be one person—a general counsel—in charge of overseeing the legal affairs of the organization. (Today, my department has three lawyers, including me and a paralegal/executve assistant.)
To land one of these coveted jobs, you have to be creative and resourceful, sometimes even persuading the organization that it’s time to get full-time legal help. Once the leaders are persuaded, here are some things to do to make sure that position goes to you:
1. Build up your resume. Gain experience drafting and negotiating contracts. Learn nonprofit corporate law, governance, and compliance basics. Understand how business laws and regulations apply in the nonprofit context, and how they differ.
2. Do pro bono or volunteer work, or serve on a nonprofit board. Work with the type of organization you would like to be employed by.
3. Build your network through social networking, bar associations, and legal education programs. List your resume with search firms that specialize in nonprofit searches.
4. Ask for informational interviews—and be sure to ask your contact for suggestions about others you should meet. But don’t go in under the guise of an informational interview and then ask for a job!
5. Show your passion for the cause. Some examples: travel to a troubled area to do relief work, contribute to or raise money for the cause, or launch and manage a social media presence on a pressing social concern.
6. Be informed. Subscribe to trade publications such as Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Times, Idealist, Arts Journal, and RSS feeds of newspapers and job Web sites. These publications carry industry-insider information about nonprofits in transition, nonprofits facing regulatory or legal challenges, and general issues of importance to the sector. Job seekers can pick up clues about which organizations may be hiring in the future—or which could be susceptible to a pitch to create a new legal position now.
In my case, my experience as outside pro bono general counsel to several nonprofits helped me land the job. My broad-ranging experience, plus the "chemistry" I had with people at the center, helped too.
But there's another route to the nonprofit sector: Apply for a nonlegal job—which, in time, might turn into a legal job. Consider the following:
—Fund-raising. This means being a zealous advocate for the organization. You'll need persuasive writing and oral expression skills. Moreover, the connections between fund-raising and law are legion–trusts and estates, tax planning, and compliance.
—Government affairs/lobbying. This is a great fit for lawyers with political, policy research, and analytical experience.
—Corporate secretary. This entails facilitating good governance, coordinating communication between the board and management, keeping corporate records, taking minutes, disseminating information, advising on bylaws matters, and drafting resolutions.
—Operations/administration. This builds on skills that lawyers running busy law practices may have in abundance, or may have acquired outside of their legal career. The GC at the Alvin Ailey Dance Co., for example, started there as a director of operations.
—Human resources. This job involves a range of legal issues: hiring, firing, complying with nondiscrimination and wage/hour laws, crafting and enforcing employee policies and handbooks, negotiating collective bargaining agreements, investigating workplace grievances, and more.
—Finance. If you have finance, business, accounting or dealmaking background, it can eventually lead to a chief financial officer role.
Some of these may seem far afield, but there are general counsel of major nonprofits–cultural, educational, social services, animal welfare, and others–who have come via each of these routes.
Paid work as in-house counsel at a nonprofit is hard to find, but with some persistence, planning, a generosity of spirit, and a little luck, you can locate or create the job. And the opportunity to bring legal skills to a cause you care about is priceless.
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