Attorneys and Non-Profit Boards: The Perfect Match

The following article was written by James A. List, Esq. and recently published in the Maryland Bar Bulletin.

Almost every non-profit organization has attorneys on their Boards of Directors or Trustees. A review of the boards of the largest non-profits in the region is a “Who’s Who” of the Maryland Bar. This is also true for private schools, small family foundations, and churches and synagogues. For example, The Arc Baltimore just added two attorneys to its Board, bringing the total to five of the 26 Board slots.

Why so many lawyers? In short, it makes sense. For the non-profit, they receive the benefit of legal counsel, often for free. Counsel has the ability to guide an organization on issues such as employment law, corporate law, immigration matters, and health care and government regulations. Attorneys understand complex contracts and can review loan documentation and credit agreements. Board attorneys can work with the organization’s paid advisors and provide input on tax compliance, gift acceptance policies, employee handbooks, and endowment guidelines.

By definition, non-profits have the public interest at heart. They address specific social, educational, or religious objectives. In part due to their mission, many advocates in the non-profit world are not comfortable with confrontation.

Attorneys, however, are problem solvers, by nature and by training.

They understand conflict resolution. And they deal with difficult issues all of the time – people generally do not call their attorney when they are having a good day. Boards seek out these advocacy and mediation skills for their organizations.

Attorneys play another important role on non-profit boards:  access to donors.  Many law firms in the region have their own foundations or charitable plans.  This is the Maryland Bar at its best.  Some firms suggest how much time and money each attorney should contribute to the foundation or other charities.  The competition for non-profit dollars is at an all-time high, with the proliferation of non-profits and the recent economic downturn.  This requires charitable, religious, and educational organizations to be more aggressive and more creative than ever before just to survive.  Law firms and their attorneys can be a great direct revenue source.

Attorneys also have clients with access to capital. Positive charitable and community exposure is a cornerstone of some businesses’ marketing strategy – think Avon and breast cancer. And these corporate sponsorships are critical for the non-profit. These sponsorships not only provide funding for programs and events, but also spur their competition to react.  Businesses do not want to be left out in the cold when their competitors are being featured as a positive community partner.

Because of what we do, attorneys often have access to high net-worth individuals. There are many estate and trust planning techniques that involve the use of charities and charitable foundations. Because of the favorable tax treatment charitable deductions receive, coupling a wealthy individual’s tax planning with their charitable intents provides a positive result for all parties.  Non-profits need to tap into these clients and this expertise.

Why do attorneys participate on non-profit boards to such an extent? It is not pure altruism.  The profession expects us to work for the public good: pro bono publico. Some law firms require such participation. The Bar requires its members to report their non-profit endeavors each year.

There is more to it, however.  Most attorneys realize that they have been fortunate, and they want to give back.  As a whole, attorneys have opportunities not always available to others for education, employment, and lifestyle.  Many attorneys provide services to non-profits in recognition of the privilege that they have been afforded.

Despite our relative comfort and status, there is a lot of dissatisfaction in the legal world. The legal profession is stressful, and attorneys deal with life’s unfortunate occurrences every day:  death, accidents, divorce, crime, disability, etc. Attorneys deal with life’s problems.  There is financial pressure, whether you are a partner at a major law firm or a solo practitioner. The level of job frustration and stress result in disturbing realities in our profession, like high rates of divorce, alcoholism, and other substance abuse. Maryland attorneys are fortunate that the Bar has taken a very proactive and positive approach to addressing these problems.

Board service also combats the negative aspects of the profession.  Board service provides attorneys with the opportunity to use their skills and training in a different context. Many attorneys publicly state that the energy expended on their non-profit service is the most rewarding aspect of their professional life. Winning cases and completing transactions can be satisfying, but raising money for a worthy charity, lobbying for legislation for people with disabilities, or helping a family during the holidays often provides a greater sense of accomplishment.

James A. List is the current President of The Arc Baltimore and the founding member of The Law Offices of James A. List, LLC.

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