“I’m going to run this by my lawyer” isn’t often said enthusiastically, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Lawyers, used right, can be a great resource for nonprofits. Some tips on working with lawyers:
Collaborate! You’re the expert in your organization: what you do, what you need, and what you can afford. We’re the experts on the legal issues. View the relationship as a partnership, where we all work together to advance the organization’s best interests. Just as with any member of your staff, set clear expectations and timelines, but also share the background and information that we will need to do our job. The more we’re part of your team and understand what’s trying to be achieved, the better we’ll serve you.
Recognize the value of expertise. The nonprofit sector has matured; it’s no longer an area where lawyers comfortably dabble. Seek out attorneys who have expertise addressing your organization’s needs. Assuring legal counsel has the technical knowledge to serve you is critical – be it nonprofit corporate law, tax-exemption law, employment and employee benefits, etc. But the right expertise also lets us be more efficient, brings wisdom borne of experience, and allows us to be practical.
Let us practice preventive medicine. Bring us in early, run that potential new transaction or project by us early in the planning stages, or when a problem first emerges. We can help you identify issues, questions or ideas early, rather than waiting until you’re much farther down the road and have to change direction when it’s more expensive, cumbersome, and frustrating. Spending a little bit on legal fees for a half-hour phone conversation early can save you thousands on the back-end. It’s also much more satisfying for everyone.
Have an honest conversation about scope, deliverables, and fees. Not every question requires a lengthy legal opinion, but some do. Sometimes what’s needed is some training, or a form, or a work plan. Ask what legwork you can do that would save on fees, and understand that sometimes it’s more efficient to let us do the work.
Budget for legal services. Just as with audit and other regular expenses, recognize that strategic use of legal counsel is part of keeping your organization healthy.
Give us time to do a good job for you. We sometimes encounter leaders who think they’ll save on legal fees if they give us a very short deadline. While you may get the specific deliverable, you’ll miss the opportunity for legal counsel to be creative problem-solvers who can save expenses and heartache in the long run.
Finally, don’t ask lawyers on your Board to be your (free) legal counsel. As Board members, lawyers bring tremendous value—we excel at identifying risks, spotting issues, asking questions, thinking critically, understanding business issues, and working with legal counsel. But, again, not all lawyers are experts in legal issues your organization may encounter. Also, Board members’ fiduciary duties differ from our professional duties as attorneys, so asking your lawyer-Board members to be legal counsel puts them in a double-bind. Plus, it’s hard enough recruiting good Board members without also saddling them with hours of unpaid legal work.
About the Author:
Sarah Duniway works with nonprofit organizations, and health care providers. She delights in helping clients achieve their mission. She especially enjoys providing practical guidance and facilitating creative problem-solving in collaboration with her clients. Sarah is known for her ability to turn complex legal analysis into practical, easy-to-understand advice.
Sarah regularly advises clients on tax-exemption, governance, campaign finance, and business operations issues. She is a frequent speaker on social enterprise legal structures such as joint ventures, mergers and affiliations, UBTI and benefit corporations, as well as on governance, election law and campaign finance issues for nonprofits.
Sarah serves as Co-Managing Partner of Gray Plant Mooty and is on the firm’s Board of Directors.