I’m excited to again speak to University of Alabama law students about opportunities in the association world. The discussion is next week at the Washington offices of Hogan Lovells. Partner Mike House is the organizer of Alabama’s government relations program that brings students to Washington for a semester to work and study.
Many association professionals will admit that they stumbled into association work after doing something else first; this was certainly true for me. Hopefully my presentation will make the students more aware of associations and non-profits so that when a door opens they will be more inclined to pursue an association opportunity.
I blogged about the ASAE Associations Now article in January on basic association law issues. The article was written by Jerry A. Jacobs, dean of the D.C. association legal community. Jerry’s book, Association Law Handbook, is in the Fifth Edition and it’s a great reference tool for association and non-profit lawyers.
How I Came to Association Work
After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1993 I worked on Capitol Hill. First in the Speaker’s Office for Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and then in the U.S. Senate for Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Because Senator Sessions was a new senator and a former prosecutor I’ve always assumed that it made it easier, as a lawyer, for me to understand the Senator’s point of view. But I got impatient with politics and wanted something different, something a little more legal than political communications. So I took an offer in 2000 to be the Director of Government Relations, for an association management company called The Roberts Group.
Association management is an exciting and growing field. Larger associations are independent corporations that usually have a physical presence, like offices, financial assets, and maybe other assets like intellectual property, or a certification or inspection program that the organization sells for a fee.
Smaller associations, with budgets of $100,000 – $5 million or so, increasingly use the services of an association management company. So as the director of government relations for The Roberts Group I was a lobbyist and regulatory counsel for several associations managed by the company. You can read more about the advantages of association management here.
After about five years with The Roberts Group, I saw an opportunity to put out a shingle, as they say. So I created the Law Offices of John H. Cox, PLLC and began serving as the general counsel to associations. I was still doing some lobbying, but I was also serving as regulatory and corporate counsel for several of the associations being managed by The Roberts Group.
I liked the fact that I was finally a real lawyer, or it kind of felt like I was. What I didn’t like was the atmosphere of a solo practice – the lack of collaboration on legal questions was a big challenge for me. But I was learning so much, and eventually I served as general counsel for six different trade associations.
My interests continued to expand and evolve, and a little more than two years ago I purchased a share of The Roberts Group. My two partners and I rebranded the firm Verto Solutions and put a focus on providing association management and scientific services to associations that represent food, agriculture and science-based industries.
My work today is varied and I prefer it to a one hundred percent legal job. I run a small business, with twenty-five people in cross-functional teams serving six associations. I’m the executive director of one association and the legal counsel to another. On most days I answer regulatory questions but I’m also involved in designing social media strategies, managing finances, recruiting new members, and planning future events. The variety is what I like.
How Big is the Association/Non-Profit Universe?
Most of my work has been for trade associations, but non-profit corporations like bar associations, charities, foundations, museums or religious organizations are all examples of non-profit corporations eligible for recognition by the IRS under section 501(c) of the tax code. All of these organizations present legal opportunities for new lawyers.
(c)(6) is the section of the tax code that recognizes trade or professional associations. As of 2009 there were more than 90,000 of these organizations in the U.S.
(c)(3) is the section that recognizes charities, foundations, or religious organizations, and there were more than 1.2 million of these in 2009.
Associations and non-profits employed more than 1.6 million people in 2009. Association jobs are found in every state, but they are primarily clustered in California, New York, Illinois, Florida, and Pennsylvania and of course, Washington, D.C. In D.C, nearly 1 out of every 10 private sector employees works for an association.
The prevalence, spending, and overall influence of non-profits are growing in our society. As trust in governments and for-profit corporations continues to decline this will further enhance the clout of non-profits.
What Types of Opportunities Exist for Lawyers in the Association World?
There are many opportunities for lawyers in associations and non-profits. The obvious place is as in-house general counsel, but associations also employ lobbyists that are frequently lawyers. Legal skills are also common in association and non-profit senior executive positions, usually called the executive director or president.
Keep in mind that most legal work done for associations and non-profits is still primarily done by outside firms, by lawyers that are familiar with non-profit legal issues and understand their cultures.
There are two primary categories of legal issue types with trade associations: governance and compliance.
Non-profit governance counsel is as close to a general practice as you are likely to find outside smaller towns. Taking a look at the table of contents in Jerry Jacobs’s Association Law Handbook will give you an idea of the variety of issues involved: Anti-trust, tax exemption, political contributions & lobbying, contracts, employment practices, and corporate governance, are just a few examples.
Compliance law for associations is specialized and is as varied as association types. This work typically involves matters related to the business that the members are in, some examples: food & cosmetic regulations, chemicals management, real estate, construction, energy, workplace safety. For any area of the law, particularly regulatory and administrative law, there is an association or associations that represent the companies or individuals in that industry and their association probably has legal expertise in this area.
I applaud Dean Kenneth Randall and the University of Alabama for creating this program for students that are interested in government affairs. Whether they realize it now, some of them will probably spend a part of their legal career working with an association or non-profit.
Key Points to Keep in Mind about Association Law
- It’s generally not litigation. If you want to spend time in a courtroom then an association is not a good move.
- The atmosphere is not entirely legal, even if you are an association lawyer you will spend your day working with lots of non-lawyers.
- People that participate in associations and non-profits are generally very nice people; they are probably successful in their professions and they care enough about their industry or field to get involved and make things better.
What’s next for me and the law is a new company called Verto Legal Solutions that will provide legal services to the association clients and their member companies served by Verto Solutions. This will allow me to keep my hand in the practice of law while continuing to explore other areas that interest me, including association management, business, marketing & communications. The association world is a great place to work and it is certainly full of opportunities for lawyers.