Home Career Management Horizon Expansion 101.4: Nonprofits—Associations and Academe

Horizon Expansion 101.4: Nonprofits—Associations and Academe


Not-for-profit corporations abound in the United States. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. The Internal Revenue Service categorizes the largest numbers as Charitable/Religious, Social Welfare, Labor Unions, Agricultural, Business Leagues, Social/Recreational Clubs, Benevolent Life Insurance Associations, Credit Unions, and Veterans Organizations. In addition, there are Academic Institutions, Legal Services Organizations, Foundations, Healthcare Provider Organizations, Museums and Non-Governmental Organizations, to name select categories that employ attorneys in a variety of mainstream law and JD Advantage jobs. It is estimated that approximately 250,000-300,000 nonprofits have attorneys on their staffs.

The number of nonprofits has grown by more than one-third in just the last decade. Despite the perennial funding and fundraising woes of many nonprofits, it continues to be an immensely popular “business” model.

The two types of nonprofits that employ the most attorneys in the greatest variety of jobs are associations and academic institutions.

Trade and Professional Associations

Among nonprofits, trade and professional associations are by far the number one employer of attorneys. More attorneys work for associations in law-related positions than in pure attorney jobs. While only approximately ten percent of the estimated 90,000 U.S. associations have an in-house counsel office, almost all have a government affairs or government relations office, often employing attorneys as lobbyists, legislative and regulatory analysts and in other positions that favor a legal background.  Professional associations in particular often have an ethics or professional responsibility staff populated by attorneys whose job it is to keep the association’s members up-to-date on professional ethics and respond to requests for ethics opinions.

Examples of trade associations include: the American Forest Products Association, American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers. Examples of professional associations include: the American Bar Association, American Health Lawyers Association, and the American Psychological Association.

Associations share four features that should be of interest to every attorney:

  • They have substantial assets (more than $2 trillion in the aggregate);
  • They employ tens of thousands of attorneys;
  • You can find these attorneys in places other than just the in-house counsel office; and
  • They are corporations. Consequently, they share many of the structural features of their for-profit counterparts. Lawyers who work for their in-house counsel offices have many of the same responsibilities as their commercial counterparts. Their legal responsibilities mirror those of for-profit corporations quite closely, the major exception being that they do not practice securities law. Like commercial corporations (see Volume 12 in the 21st Century Legal Career Series, “JD Advantage Jobs in Corporations: In-House Counsel and 20 Other Departments,”available from the National Association for Law Placement), associations also hire lawyers for a variety of JD Advantage jobs.

For detailed information about where attorneys work in trade and professional associations and how to position yourself for one of these jobs, see Volume 13 in the 21st Century Legal Career Series, “Tricks of the Trade (and Professional) Associations: A Huge “Hidden” Legal Job Market,”available from the National Association for Law Placement.

Colleges and Universities

Among nonprofits, the academic sector employs more attorneys in law-related positions than any other employment sector. A generation ago, only a handful of America’s 4,500+ colleges and universities had their own in-house legal office. Today, very few do not. As their counsel offices’ responsibilities expanded, they often found that it made sense to establish other legal and quasi-legal offices outside of the general counsel office to handle very specific problems with a legal component.  These “satellite” offices expanded rapidly and today it is not uncommon to find multiple campus offices with attorneys working in either legal or law-related positions. Some of the larger institutions have all of the following offices with law-related responsibilities while others – large and small – have a selection of them:

  • Contract and Grants Management
  • Disabled Student Affairs
  • Employee Relations
  • Environmental Affairs
  • Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action
  • Ethics
  • Government Affairs
  • International Student Affairs
  • Judicial Affairs
  • Labor Relations
  • Legislative Affairs
  • Ombudsman
  • Real Estate
  • Regulatory Compliance
  • Risk Management
  • Sponsored Research and Industry Alliances
  • Technology Transfer and Licensing

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) imposed sweeping new regulatory mandates that require colleges and universities to report to the U.S. government on more than 300 topics subject to federal scrutiny, such as tuition and fee information, tuition cost reduction initiatives, textbook prices by individual course, transfer-of-credit policies, file sharing, binge drinking, meningitis outbreaks, missing persons, fire safety, voter registration, drug violations, fatalities, student sanctions and technology disposal, among many others. The law prompted a surge in legal hiring and an expansion of university legal involvement.

For detailed information about where attorneys work in trade and professional associations and how to position yourself for one of these jobs, see Volume 8 in the 21st Century Legal Career Series, The Education Sector: Overwhelmed by the Law,”available from the National Association for Law Placement.

 Next: Horizon Expansion 101.5: Nonprofits—Hospitals et al.


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