As a corporate attorney at McDermott, Will & Emery, Jennifer Bock spends most of her time focused on transactional work related to mergers and acquisitions, finance, and other business matters. It’s a fast-paced job that sees her managing the portfolios of large companies around the U.S. and abroad, so when she noticed the Clearinghouse was seeking a lawyer to assist a small, local nonprofit, she decided to jump at the chance to put her skills to use for a pro bono client.
After Jennifer was connected with the organization through the Clearinghouse’s Legal Referral Program, she got to work helping them revise their internal policies and outdated governance documents.
The first matter at hand concerned volunteer waivers. For years, the nonprofit had collected paper waivers – using different forms for adults and minors – and stored them in filing cabinets. They had accumulated hundreds of hard copies by the time Jennifer started working with them, and they wanted advice on moving to an electronic format. Jennifer consolidated the two versions of the form and then conducted extensive research into the electronic storage of waivers in Massachusetts and under federal law. The final product was a streamlined electronic form and an updated document retention policy outlining how to deal with the existing waivers and all paperwork moving forward.
The next project concerned the organization’s bylaws, which had not been updated for decades. After many years and a gradual turnover of board members, the current board felt the bylaws were too restrictive and confusing. Jennifer first helped the board break down the complex legal jargon contained in the bylaws, before asking members to outline how the nonprofit had been operating and what their goals were moving forward. She used that information to revise the bylaws so they were in line with the organization’s current governance practices and compliant with the applicable law.
Finally, Jennifer took a look at the nonprofit’s employee contracts, which were signed years ago and had since expired. The board wanted to know if they needed new contracts or if it made sense to instead create an employee handbook. After researching the practices of similarly-sized nonprofits, Jennifer and the board agreed an employee handbook was more appropriate and collaborated to create a template the organization can use at it sees fit.
Issues like the three Jennifer worked on are common in the nonprofit world, where employees and board members may not have the time or knowledge needed to stay on top of the many associated legal requirements. Jennifer says the most common mistake she sees nonprofits make is not realizing when legal intervention is necessary.
“A nonprofit, just like any other organization that’s created under law, is going to have legal needs,” she says. “It’s going to have very similar problems as a for-profit entity, and for it to be functional it needs not only the community’s financial support to keep things running, but it also needs attorneys to help make sure that it doesn’t incur any problems, which can be very detrimental.”
The best way for nonprofits to avoid such problems, Jennifer says, is to either reach out to pro bono legal organizations like Lawyers Clearinghouse or consult with other nonprofits facing similar issues.
Though she has wrapped up work with this most recent nonprofit client, Jennifer is open to helping them with any future matters and plans to sign up for a new case through the Clearinghouse. She encourages all attorneys to get involved when they can.
“Finding a balance and finding the right moment to take on a pro bono case is, I think, the most challenging,” she says. “But once you find that moment, doing pro bono work is very interesting and a lot of fun.”