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Making the transition to a nonprofit

nonprofitEditor’s Note: Generation J.D. bloggers often provide informal career and job advice in this space. Tracey Cohen Paliath’s job is to provide people with career and job advice. Paliath, director of economic and self-sufficiency services at Jewish Community Services, writes a monthly column drawing on her experience in law and social services.

Many lawyers I know, especially those grinding it out in the early years in law firms, are interested in working in the nonprofit world. As I’ve progressed in my career, I noticed the surprising effect doing pro bono work had on other young lawyers (you know, those of us who are concerned with “work/life balance” in a way that lawyers a generation or two ahead of us never spoke about.)

I noticed that my friends would happily work through an entire weekend non-stop on a pro bono death penalty appeal but complain bitterly when they had to spend a regular day making privilege calls on a document production. In time, my belief that lawyers got burned out because of the long hours they worked appeared to have a lot of holes in it.

Instead, I saw a group of people who deliberately took on more work if it involved habeus corpus or filing a lawsuit to protect the rights of the disabled. Cliché?  Possibly, but it’s true. Many people never left behind the idealism that sent them to law school (or helped them get through it).

Eventually, I made the transition to the nonprofit world.  I received (and still receive) a lot of emails from law school classmates and former colleagues asking how they can do it.  Here are my tips:

1.) Figure out what issues or causes move you. Just working in a nonprofit won’t be satisfying if you are not passionate about the cause. What do you get excited about? Educational reform or urban poverty? Focus your attention on those arenas.

2.) Get active in the cause. Volunteer at a shelter operated by a nonprofit for whom you’d like to work. Participate in their fundraiser and make sure you meet network at the event. Doing a great job on a small project or helping with a planning committee is a great way to get exposure. Remember, organizations want to hire people they know will fit in with their culture and are committed to the cause and the company. Demonstrate these qualities before you even apply for a job.

3.) Make a connection. Along those lines, find out if anyone in your firm or personal life knows the staff or board members of one of your target organizations and tell your contact you want to get involved. Ask them to make an introduction for you. Nonprofits love it when they have community ambassadors who do this, so do not be shy.

4.) Attend a conference or other event that will allow you to become more educated on the issues and meet people at the same time. Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations hosts a variety of seminars for nonprofit leadership – take a couple of hours and go to one. Attend an advocacy day in Annapolis with a trade group. Check the Daily Record for events that will attract nonprofit leaders. Be educated. Be open.

5.) Broaden your skill sets (or think about ways to redefine them) so that you could be part of a leadership team and not just in-house counsel. Many nonprofits can’t dedicate resources to having an internal legal department, and find it’s cheaper just to pay for legal advice and representation when it is needed. But, if you are willing to function as a program officer, deputy director or similar position and can make the case that you can do the job and bring your legal knowledge as a “plus factor,” you just became a very interesting candidate.

Changing to a career in a nonprofit takes some planning, but it can be done. And while you are laying the groundwork for the change, think of all the amazing work you are doing in the world. Some good karma can’t hurt, either.

One comment

  1. Loved this article! I just started working for a non-profit and already know I made the right move from corporate counsel and oil/gas litigation. Great points on transitioning!