Three Nonprofit Practices That Might Help Lawyers

Nonprofit executive directors (EDs) must accumulate a very specific set of skills and resources to excel in their jobs. They need a combination of knowledge, experiences and practical tools to comply with the sophisticated governance and management mandates and best practices (which have evolved considerably over the last 70 years and continue to change). At the same time, they also need to be able to articulate and obtain buy-in for their leadership visions.

Can the same be said for lawyers? Is there a short-list of skills that every successful lawyer must possess? Sure, lawyers need to know how to read a case, conduct legal research and construct a legal argument. We must be able to understand our clients’ needs and problems and be able to produce legal work-product that satisfies client requirements and solves problems. But, mastery of the essentials of practicing law is not necessarily accompanied by a corresponding mastery of the complexities of the legal industry.

A legal education does not provide adequate preparation for the business of law. New lawyers come with a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Many successful lawyers need never address their weaknesses; they are either not an issue in their specific area of practice or their strengths so greatly outweigh the weaknesses that the latter are overlooked, or chalked up to quirky eccentricities. For others, however, lack of insight or training into how to overcome practice management or leadership deficiencies can have serious consequences— from disgruntled clients to inability to retain the best talent or even serious disciplinary consequences including suspension or disbarment.

For two years, I have worked as the ED of a nonprofit organization that helps lawyers with a range of challenges, from getting their practices or personal lives in order to learning how to be more effective bosses or employers. Before my current position, I spent several years in practice advising individual and institutional clients on best practices with respect to compliance with Internal Revenue Code requirements of tax-exempt organizations. I have learned a lot through this combination of experiences, and many of the best practices that I have observed may help the practice of law. Here are a few:

1. Surround yourself with disinterested but passionate advisors.

The Internal Revenue Code requires that “no part of the net earnings” of any 501(c)3 and most other common types (501(c)4, 501(c)5,501(c)6,501(c)7, 501(c)9 etc.), of tax-exempt organizations may “inure[] to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” This sentence has given rise to an effective requirement that all such organizations have diverse and disinterested boards of directors and robust conflict of interest policies. The result is that EDs of successful nonprofit organizations will receive direction and oversight from a disinterested board of directors.

EDs of stable and thriving nonprofit organizations will expect to be supported and challenged by their organizations’ boards of directors. Nonprofit boards have a duty to act in the best interests of the organization, not to rubber-stamp the decisions of their EDs, and, as such, will ask thought-provoking and challenging questions, and provide executives with helpful and constructive feedback.

Lawyers, particularly solo and small firm lawyers, may not always have the benefit of such feedback. To the contrary, the understandable temptation is to surround oneself with colleagues and staff who might generally be like-minded individuals. Everyone can profit from a certain amount of challenge, and coming from the right source and with the best of intentions, a vigorous and healthy challenge today may save a world of trouble down the road. Many lawyers who incur court or disciplinary sanctions do not seek or receive the counsel or assistance of disinterested advisors. They may either be working alone or surrounded by support staff or colleagues who lack perspective or feel unable to point out that this lawyer’s actions may have fallen short of appropriate standards. These lawyers have no one to tell them that they were heading in the wrong direction. While challenging questions may be annoying or disrupt our momentum, they provide accountability and protection and act as early warning devices when a contemplated course of action might not be the correct one.

Lawyers who find themselves operating in silos without the benefit of another lawyer or group of lawyers’ challenge or advice, can adopt a few simple techniques to change the status quo and improve their access to feedback. They can join (or even form one if one does not exist) a practice area specific bar association. Many bar associations have web-based discussion groups and listservs where lawyers can run questions or concerns by one another without ever needing to leave their homes or offices. Prospective mentors can also be identified by other means, through observations of colleagues’ behaviors in courts, at negotiation tables or through careful review of the newest case law. Any one of these situations can help a lawyer identify mentors or resources that can improve access to disinterested advice. A local law office management assistance program, and local and national bar associations’ law practice and solo and small firm divisions and sections, also can point a lawyer in the right direction.

2. Keep meticulous records and recognize when you may need help.

Many nonprofit organizations are required to undergo annual third-party audits. All of them must have well-articulated conflict of interest policies and must ensure that their records accurately reflect that all the organization’s activities and expenditures are undertaken in pursuit of the organizations’ nonprofit (tax-exempt) purposes. Effective nonprofit leaders must understand basic accounting, budgeting, and bookkeeping principles, or at a minimum, have access to and trust someone who can provide such expertise. Without meticulous bookkeeping, accounting, budgeting, and financial planning in place, nonprofit organizations would quickly fail, either for lack of compliance with regulatory guidelines or due to insolvency. Many lawyers lack background or skills in finances and may not be great record-keepers. Failure to track time expended on matters accurately or conduct proper bookkeeping is a leading cause of lawyer discipline—not to mention causing lawyers to underbill for their time.

Many lawyers who incur discipline due to billing or accounting ethics violations had no training or background in proper record-keeping, let alone in finance. They were likely aware of these skill or knowledge deficits but failed to take appropriate corrective action. Effective nonprofit executives must be vigilant, diligent and sensitive when it comes to financial planning and record-keeping practices. They need to muster that vigilance, diligence, and sensitivity from day one, as it is an essential element of the job. Without the right type of training or affinity for such topics, lawyers do not perceive such diligence, or even basic financial literacy, with the level of urgency that a nonprofit professional may bring to the task, and this lack of prioritization can lead to significant disruption to both professional and family life.

Without the right perspective on learning, lawyers risk limiting themselves in several ways beyond ethics. Lawyers are expected to engage in continuing learning—whether CLE credits are required in their state or not. Having the ability to recognize what skills we need to develop at any given time is an element of competence. In 2018, economic and technological changes affect every type of law practice. Lawyers who do not engage in new challenges by learning new skills may need to find another line of work. As above, a good place to start is local law office management assistance programs or bar associations’ law practice and solo and small firm divisions and sections. Many lawyer regulatory authorities also provide free trust accounting training.

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3. Reflect on how the substance of your work aligns with your values.

In the field of lawyer assistance, we see clients with a range of concerns, from alcohol and substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, to a general inability to deliver appropriate work product. In many of these cases, these lawyers may have experienced an absence or waning of interest in their area of practice. Their area of practice is not what they had planned or hoped for when they first entered law school. They do not sense that they are serving a greater good or that they feel much passion for the job. Some of them may not, in recent years, have given their areas of practice much critical thought or examined what motivates them. They may have deliberately suppressed such questions as: “Am I doing what I love?” or “Do I feel like I am doing what I was always meant to do?” Such questions may be too hard to bear. Over a course of several years or decades, they may become increasingly detached from their work, separating the idea of doing what felt good or right from the necessity of doing their jobs.

Nonprofit leaders cannot effectively lead organizations unless they feel strong connections to the organization’s values. They must have a passion for achieving the mission of the organization and must be able to articulate a vision for pursuing that mission. For example, an individual who is an adherent to the right-to-life movement would not make an effective ED of the National Abortion Rights Action League, and a person who does not enjoy children might not be the best choice for leadership of a child advocacy group. The same is not necessarily true for lawyers, who are often committed to justice as a process rather than as an outcome.  A lawyer who may not believe in a woman’s right to choose might still make an effective advocate for a woman seeking to assert such a right, and a lawyer who is a firm believer in choice might make a great lawyer for a pro-life activist or organization. Our legal training allows us to argue and understand legal cases on the merits, irrespective of our personal feelings or connections to our clients’ causes.

While such detachment is frequently necessary to provide competent representation, if that detachment ultimately correlates with a lawyer’s lack of work satisfaction or leads them to drink or be depressed, it might be appropriate for that lawyer to question whether their practice is the best fit for temperament or professional goals. If they feel like their work conflicts with their personal values or fails to provide much intrinsic benefit, it might be worth a moment to question, “Is it worth it, or is there another area of practice or work in which I might feel more satisfied?” While effective lawyering does not require a strong connection to, or passion for, the goals of our clients, many areas of practice are uniquely suited to “lawyering for good.” For lawyers who feel that they are just not doing enough to pursue their personal values, that their work just isn’t doing it for them, a closer look at their area of practice may make all the difference.

While the values of effective nonprofit EDs must align with those of their organization, they must also be level-headed and balanced, to avoid burnout and ensure that they can bring their passion to work every day. While some lawyers become disenchanted with their work over time, other lawyers are all passion and may find that the relentless pursuit of their values comes at a surprising cost. Whether to work with a vulnerable demographic or to address a systemic injustice, such lawyers often encounter compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, not to mention frustration at slow progress in achieving systemic reform. They may also struggle with appropriate boundaries, too often graying the lines between their personal and professional lives.

Whatever the source of a lawyer’s stress with respect to how their work may align with their values, whether the apathy or disillusionment that comes with feeling disconnected from the work we do or the intense emotions and frequent disappointments that come with working with clients whose lives may be fraught with turmoil, lawyers, like nonprofit EDs, must assess how their values and work align, and be able to acknowledge and effectively handle any tensions that may arise from the complex relationship between the work we do and the values we hold.

Mental health professionals, particularly those employed at lawyer assistance programs, can help lawyers navigate these complexities and help them assess how or whether either an absence or overabundance of passion for their work might act as obstructions to optimum mental health.

These are just a few of many lessons from the nonprofit sector that lawyers might apply to their practices. This is neither an exhaustive list nor a revolutionary fix to many of the challenges that lawyers face. It’s food for thought. And just as we all need food to survive, our careers need the regular sustenance of challenge, learning, questioning, realigning and practice.

About the Author

Anna Levine is the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc., in Boston, which is the Massachusetts Lawyer Assistance Program.

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