Public interest law is an area of law that focuses on, simply put, doing good. “This area of law encompasses work done not with the primary goal of making a profit, but rather to protect individual rights, advance justice, or enhance the public good” (Source). Lawyers in this field work in an array of areas, including the following:
- Government (e.g. Attorney General)
- Non-profit Organizations (e.g. ACLU, Humane Society)
- International Organizations (e.g. State Department, World Bank)
- Prosecutor and public defender offices
- Military (e.g. JAG)
For our purposes, it’s important to look at lawyers who specialize in working with or for nonprofit organizations (e.g. private firms who specialize in representing nonprofit organizations’ interests).
Why Should You Hire the Help of a Professional?
Individuals who work in nonprofit organizations are known for being well rounded in their skill sets. They’re go-getters, take-it-all-on, over-achieving people. However, when it comes to legal matters, it’s best that you consult the help of a professional. Save yourself valuable time and unavoidable stress!
The following is a list of potential areas where you and your organization may need legal help. (Information borrowed from Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta):
Filing as a 301(c)(3) organization, or other applicable status (Is our organization ready for tax exemption? What are the pros and cons of forming a tax-exempt organization? What are the benefits and responsibilities of being incorporated and tax exempt?)
Representing your interests for possible lawsuits (What risks does our organization face? What protections should our organization have in place to address these risks? Does our organization have appropriate insurance protection, such as Directors & Officers liability insurance?)
Determining potential liabilities of board members (What are the roles responsibilities and proper activities of the board of directors of a nonprofit organization?)
Managing mergers and consolidations (What’s the difference between a merger, an affiliation, and a joint venture? What are the pros and cons of various forms of collaboration?)
Negotiating contracts and leases (Are we representing our best interests in this contract?)
Registering logos and trademarks (What are the different regulations concerning intellectual property?)
Navigating the tricky waters of Employment Law (Are our personnel policies up to date? What are the ADA, FMLA, HIPAA and Title VII? What is the difference between an employee and an independent contractor? Should we have an employment manual? What policies and practices should be addressed?)
Coordinating Volunteers (What laws apply, or don’t apply, to volunteers? What should our organization be doing to screen potential volunteers? When, and how, can a nonprofit organization be held liable for the negligent acts of its volunteers? Can our volunteers be sued? What is the federal Volunteer Protection Act and what protections does it afford for nonprofit agency volunteers?)
Fundraising and generating revenue (Is our organization properly registered to conduct fundraising and appropriately reporting the donations it receives to the IRS? Do solicitations contain required disclosures? Are the proper acknowledgements being provided to our donors? Are we generating income from a business venture? Do we owe taxes on such income?)
Engaging in politics (What political activities are prohibited? Can we lobby for specific legislation?)
Working with technology (What legal issues do we face in connection with our website? What are the legal implications of having links from our website to other websites? Should we have an internet use policy for employees?)
For more information on public interest law, visit The Online Resource for Public Service Legal Careers, The Global Network for Public Interest Law, and NYU’s Public Interest Law Center.
*I am not a lawyer, and this information is not meant to be considered professional or legal advice. If you have more questions regarding your nonprofit’s legal matters, seek the help of a professional.
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