What Type of Lawyer Should Our Nonprofit Hire?

The type of lawyer your nonprofit chooses should depend on how established your nonprofit is, the size of your nonprofit, and the legal issues your nonprofit needs solved.

Finding a lawyer is an important step for your nonprofit organization. The type of lawyer your nonprofit chooses should depend on how established your nonprofit is, the size of your nonprofit, and the legal issues your nonprofit needs solved.

The following can help your nonprofit as it sifts through the many choices of lawyers and law firms.

Solo Lawyers Versus Larger Law Firms

Your nonprofit will need to choose whether it wants to work with a solo lawyer (perhaps someone starting out) or a larger law firm. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. Your nonprofit's needs may change over time, so it’s possible the best strategy will be to begin working with a solo lawyer, and then transition to a larger firm as you grow.

Solo lawyers. Working with a solo lawyer has its advantages. For example, your nonprofit will have only one point of contact and will always know who’s working on an issue. Solo lawyers also tend to offer lower fees and alternative fee arrangements, which can be beneficial for a nonprofit.

But working with a solo lawyer also has its disadvantages. A solo lawyer may practice in only one area of law. For example, a solo lawyer may handle only contracts, so that if your nonprofit has a trademark dispute, you will have to find another lawyer to work with for that dispute. Your nonprofit might need to develop relationships with several different solo lawyers, whom you can call depending on the legal issue at hand.

Larger law firms. Alternatively, your nonprofit could choose to work with a larger law firm. Many larger law firms cover a variety of practice areas, including business law, contracts, intellectual property, and litigation. Working with a larger law firm will allow your nonprofit to work with one point of contact no matter what the legal issue, although your nonprofit will likely be working with different attorneys within the same firm.

While there is convenience and efficiency in that, there could also be higher fees, as larger firms tend to charge more and may not be open to alternative fee arrangements. Your nonprofit may also have difficulty getting in touch with an attorney, as larger firms usually have receptionists, assistants, and paralegals on the front lines.

In What Practice Areas Should the Lawyer Our Nonprofit Hires Be Experienced?

Nonprofits are unique in that their legal needs touch on many different practice areas, and their needs change over time. Regardless of whether your nonprofit has just started or is more established, it will encounter several different areas of law.

One lawyer may be able to handle all of these areas for your nonprofit, but it’s more likely that your nonprofit will need several different lawyers, depending on what issues it’s facing.

  • Nonprofit law. For starters, it will be beneficial to find a lawyer who focuses on nonprofit law. Nonprofits have a different set of rules to follow than for-profit businesses, so it’s important that your chosen attorney have at least a basic understanding of what those rules are and how they apply to your nonprofit. Nonprofit attorneys work solely with nonprofits and usually can advise on all legal issues a nonprofit faces, including starting a nonprofit, filing for tax exemption, and fundraising.
  • General business law. A nonprofit is a business, so it will encounter general business law issues. These include forming a business, drafting, reviewing, and negotiating contracts, dealing with employee or independent contractor issues, and any day-to-day legal issues that may come up. A nonprofit lawyer may be able to handle these issues, but if not, your nonprofit will need to find a lawyer who can.
  • Real estate law. A real estate lawyer can advise on leasing or buying commercial property for your nonprofit, and will help draft, review, and negotiate real estate contracts. A real estate lawyer can also help get special licensing for fundraising events. A nonprofit or general business law lawyer may be able to help with these issues, but if your nonprofit encounters anything too complex, it may need to bring in a real estate law expert.
  • Intellectual property law. An intellectual property lawyer handles patents, copyrights, and trademark. Your nonprofit probably won’t need any help with patents, unless it is inventing something. But your nonprofit will have a need for a trademark lawyer to protect its name and logo, and a copyright lawyer to protect any material it creates, such as its website, brochures, or programs. Some general business law attorneys have a basic understanding of intellectual property law, but they may wind up referring your nonprofit to an expert if it’s something they can’t handle.
  • Litigation. Many disputes are resolved without the need for costly litigation. If your nonprofit finds itself in a trademark or contract dispute, it would consult with its trademark or contract lawyer, who would then negotiate a resolution for the dispute. However, if a resolution cannot be negotiated, your nonprofit may need to hire a litigator. Litigators are courtroom attorneys and are the ones who would either prosecute or defend your nonprofit in a dispute. If your nonprofit finds itself embroiled in a dispute, a litigation attorney can be invaluable.

Where to Find a Nonprofit Lawyer

If your nonprofit needs help finding a lawyer, there are many places to look. One is to ask other nonprofits, friends, family, or colleagues for a recommendation. Another option is to use Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, which can help locate a lawyer based on practice area and geographical location.

Finding a good lawyer, or team of lawyers, is an important step for your nonprofit. Nonprofits have unique needs and may need to work with more than one lawyer to cover each legal issue that they encounter. Keeping the above information in mind can help your nonprofit navigate the process of finding a lawyer.

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