Nicole is a senior at the Sy Syms School of Business in Manhattan studying business management and psychology. She is currently a Summer Development & Communications intern at the Pro Bono Net New York Headquarters.
On July 12, 2016, the Practicing Law Institute, a nonprofit continuing legal education and professional training organization, hosted a webcast entitled “Serving on a Nonprofit Board – Practical Considerations for Attorneys.” In the webinar, experts Nancy Eberhardt and Courtney A. Darts, Director of the New Jersey Program and Director of Education at the Pro Bono Partnership, discussed practical tips and ethical considerations for attorneys serving or thinking of serving on the board of a nonprofit.
For many lawyers, joining the board of a nonprofit can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both personally and professionally. It provides an opportunity to get involved in a cause important to you, as well as to make valuable connections with other lawyers and professionals. The key, as they discussed, is finding a non-profit whose cause interests you and is one you feel you could be of value to.
They began the seminar by discussing the role of a nonprofit board and the roles one can take on as a board member. Ensuring compliance with laws and regulations as well as supervising top level staff are key responsibilities. As a lawyer, you are in a pivotal position to use your legal expertise for issue-spotting and legal strategy within the organization. The discussion also touched on the overall structure of a nonprofit, where the board should delegate important tasks to the organizations’ employees and help define the overall direction and strategy. Another crucial role for board members is acting as a representative of the organization to the community at large and promoting the organization in whatever way possible.
From there the discussion turned to why one would serve on the board of a nonprofit. First and foremost, you should have commitment to the cause, this is the driving factor that allows you to be properly dedicated and what usually attracts someone to getting involved in a nonprofit. “Because you were asked”, Darts and Eberhardt mentioned, can’t be the only reason. Lawyers, as they said, are heavily sought after for board positions within nonprofits, and it is important to choose a cause that you feel strongly about and feel you are in a position to help.
Darts and Eberhardt went on to talk about different considerations one should take into account before joining a nonprofit board, such as interest level, availability, and experience with the organization. They stressed again the importance of joining a cause you are interested in, but also finding out what the organization requires of its board members in terms of duties, time, and money. They encouraged asking to see the minutes from previous meetings to get a sense of what role the board members play, as well as finding out how often they meet, for how long, etc. and what sort of obligations you would have outside of attending meetings.
Organizations vary greatly in what they expect of their board members in terms of advising, personal donations, and fundraising help. It is also important to do your research on the organizations reputation within their community, which Darts and Eberhardt stated as “a nonprofit’s most valuable asset.” They advised looking into where the organization gets its funding and how stable of a source it is, as well as any legal issues it may be currently having, and to be clear from the beginning on your financial abilities and what sort of contributions they can reasonably expect from you.
As a lawyer, your role within the board is unique in that you have the option to give legal advice to the organization. However, there are a number of concerns associated with this; the organizations Directors and Officers Liability insurance (D&O) coverage, attorney client privilege issues, and potential conflicts of interest to name a few. They advised making sure the organization has D&O coverage before acting as their legal council, and thinking about not serving on their board and simply offering your legal services should you wish to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Similarly, they advised speaking to someone within the organization to clarify what types of services they expect you to offer. They did point out however, that whether you decide to offer legal council or not, as a lawyer you are in a unique position to still use your legal expertise for issue spotting and other strategic uses as a board member.
Overall, this hour-long webinar helped shed a lot of light on important considerations any attorney should think about before joining a nonprofit board and getting more involved in the access to justice community. It can be a highly rewarding experience for both lawyers and nonprofits.
At the core of Practising Law Institute’s mission is its commitment to offer training to members of the legal profession to support their pro bono service. PLI offers pro bono training, scholarships, and access to live programs, Webcasts, and On-Demand archived programs, as well as an extensive Pro Bono Membership program. For more information about PLI’s pro bono programs and activities, please visit www.pli.edu/probono. Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @ProBonoPLI.