When starting a nonprofit it’s easy to drown in a sea of paperwork, but using a nonprofit lawyer can save you from that demise. They draft documents, file forms and help you with any legal questions or problems that might occur.

These five tips will help you finding a nonprofit lawyer to help you navigate those rough waters.

Look Outside Your Board

Many nonprofits ask attorneys to be on their board of directors for their expertise and experience as a lawyer. However, this should not be your first method in finding a lawyer to help your organization. A lawyer on your board brings a wealth of experience and a legal background to help advise the board decisions, but don’t expect that person to perform legal endeavors or defend you in court. A conflict of interest would be created if the lawyer participated on your board of directors. It could also put the attorney in a position to be called in case of a lawsuit, and even possibly lose clients or suffer legal ramification. Before you ask a lawyer to serve on your board, be sure to lay out the expectations so they know what their legal and ethical obligations will be.

Ask Around

It can be difficult to find a lawyer who has nonprofit experience. The quickest way to find one is asking other nonprofit executives who their lawyer is and how they found them.  And when you’re asking around, check to see if any local law firms perform pro bono work for nonprofits.

You could also open up the phone book (yes, those still exist) and look in the Yellow Pages. But if you can’t find one, look online for local attorneys and scan for ones that work with charities and nonprofits. If you find a couple of lawyers or firms that work in nonprofit law, be sure to ask your network if they have ever worked with those attorneys.

Find Referral Sources

There are many services you can use to help find a nonprofit lawyer. Combine these services with the previous step of asking around to really jump start your search.

  • Attorney or Lawyer Referral Service (ARS) – Gives the names of lawyers who have selected themselves to be listed under nonprofit or charity. Only use an ARS that is operated by your local bar association and not an independent group of lawyers.
  • Bar Associations – You can start at the national level with the American Bar Association website or go to the state level, but know that some states only allow members to search their directory.
  • Nonprofit Associations – Just like lawyers have associations, so do nonprofits. Consult with the local or regional chapter to see if they have any attorney referral services.
  • Law schools – Check with the local law school to see if they have a clinic or other program that can help you out.
  • Martindale-Hubbell – A directory of over a million attorneys with ratings based on experience, expertise and integrity.
  • Law.com – You can search for lawyers under categories such as nonprofit or environmental law.
  • Other websites – Lawyers.com (allows you to search by state and topic area) FindLaw.com (it doesn’t have categories of charitites, but it has a database based on experience) and Law for Change (Search by state or topic).

Meet with the Potential Attorneys

Take advantage of the fact that many lawyers will give you a free consultation. When you go, bring another person with you so you can get another opinion about the lawyer. Have a list of questions to ask themost. You will want to know what their experience is working with nonprofits and the related laws. Ask if the lawyer requires a retainer and what type of services the firm offers—as well as the possible fees, and if they offer a lower rate for nonprofit organizations. Here is an overview of 12 questions to ask your potential lawyer.

Create a Performance Review Schedule

After you take care of the initial paperwork, don’t cut your lawyer free. Stay in touch and review the lawyer’s performance annually to make sure they are meeting your needs. If they aren’t, don’t be afraid to cut the cord and look for a new attorney. Working with your attorney should be a mutually beneficial partnership. If they aren’t treating you as an important client, then move on.

The legal issues don’t stop once you are incorporated. Be sure to ask them about any other issues that arise whether it is about IRS rules and regulations, conflict of interest issues, dealing with removal of leadership (or volunteers) or record keeping. There will be many more questions even after your organization is up and running. Go to your lawyer when these questions arise—it’s why you hired them.


start a nonprofit course

Take your good idea to a fully-functioning 501c3

The Start a Nonprofit Class is an on-demand, self-paced course taught by nonprofit expert, Randy Hawthorne. This class walks you through the beginning steps of taking a cause concept to an operational nonprofit mission.