Elon University School of Law: Engaging the Nonprofit Sector in Legal Education
Article Date: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Written By: Faith Rivers James & Benjamin A. Snyder
Dedicated to the hallmark principles of engaged learning and leadership, Elon University School of Law prepares students for nonprofit service as counsel, in governance, and through community leadership. While traditional law study endeavors to prepare students to “think like a lawyer,” modern legal education has expanded to include skills-based training to complement the traditional doctrinal curriculum. As the legal academy, the bar, and corporate clients discuss the appropriate forum to provide training in lawyering skills, the rapid pace of change in the legal industry has added primacy and a sense of urgency to the call for skills development within the law school curriculum. This combination of doctrinal and skills instruction expands student knowledge, deepens their understanding, and provides them with critical training in professional proficiencies.
Elon Law School’s course in Nonprofit Organizations includes both substantive and skills components. Students study nonprofit governance, including the scope of fiduciary duties, conflict of interest issues, and effective organizational structure and operation. In this respect, the course is a specialized Business Associations class, offering public-interest-minded students the opportunity to delve deep into the legal concepts, history, and policy underlying the “independent sector.” In other ways, the course operates as a public interest focused Tax course, engaging students in a thorough study of the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury Regulations governing tax-exempt entities.
Yet what students likely retain most from the course is its practice-oriented features. The innovative final class project requires students to draft organizational documents, including articles of incorporation, bylaws, and a strategic plan. In addition, students complete a North Carolina charitable solicitation application and IRS Form 1023 – Application for Recognition of Exemption. By the end of the Nonprofit Organizations course, students are prepared to provide legal services to nonprofit organizations and to serve as board members.
Nonprofit Externship Service
Elon Law School’s Externship Program provides students an opportunity to sharpen their skills by working at a nonprofit organization under the supervision of an attorney and faculty advisor, Prof. Margaret Kantlehner, Director of Externships, Preceptors and Capstone Leadership Experiences. As part of the externship, students may observe and participate in matters related to organizational governance, conduct research, and support attorneys in the representation of the organization’s clients. Through an exciting new partnership with The Washington Center, Elon Law students have an opportunity to undertake full-semester or summer externships at nonprofit and government offices in Washington, D.C.
Building upon traditional methodologies of service learning and pro bono programs, a core component of Elon Law School’s Leadership Program is engaging students in problem-solving with nonprofit organizations and government entities. During the Winter Term, second-year students in the required Public Law and Leadership Experience course work with organizations to tackle public law and policy problems.
Under the supervision of law faculty serving as “partners,” students practice client interviewing skills, conduct site visits, and hone their research and communication skills. In addition, students utilize a variety of non-traditional skills, including strategic planning; interpreting ordinances, statutes, and regulations; analyzing the implications of regulatory policies; and making recommendations to help clients identify and avoid legal problems.
At the conclusion of the intensive winter term, student teams convey their findings and proposed solutions to clients in a live presentation, and provide a client memorandum and accompanying draft documents. In the process, students learn how to lead others. They gain practical experience working in self-managed teams, where they learn to deconstruct large projects into discrete assignments, delegate responsibilities, and manage deadlines. A team of executive coaches, led by Prof. John Alexander, Distinguished Executive Coach in Residence, provide feedback to students on their interactions with their teams and clients – better preparing each student for the group dynamics of practicing law.
Nonprofit and government entities are important collaborative partners in this learning experience. Since the inception of the course, Elon Law students have worked with a wide range of nonprofit and governmental organizations to achieve an array of important public law objectives.
• Self Help Credit Union
• Action Greensboro
• North Carolina Legal Aid
• East Market Development Corporation
• Guilford Child Development
• Greensboro Housing Coalition
• The Volunteer Center of Greensboro
• City of Greensboro – University Roundtable
• Center for Youth, Family & Community Partnerships
• Glenwood Family Ministries – Hope Academy
• Piedmont Conservation Council
• Bicycling in Greensboro
• After Gateway
• Reading Connections
• Elsewhere Collaborative
• North Carolina Business Court
This structured, client-centered interaction expands every Elon Law student’s understanding of the professional and service opportunities in the nonprofit sector. As a follow-up, students may elect to develop an independent project with a nonprofit organization for the Capstone elective course. Working directly with nonprofits as clients, students begin to see how their legal knowledge and skills uniquely qualify them to serve in leadership roles in the civic life of the communities where they live and practice law.
Engaging the Nonprofit Sector in Legal Education
Elon Law School’s expansive engagement with the nonprofit sector combines traditional service learning with the pro bono service ethic that is a guiding principle of the legal profession and a fundamental tenet of the school’s Leadership Program. Students emerge from courses in the nonprofit curriculum with knowledge, skills, and experiences that will better prepare them to serve as counsel to a nonprofit client, manage a pro bono file, and take leadership in civic and community organizations. A number of Elon Law alumni and current students are putting their knowledge and skills to work for professional and community organizations, serving as volunteers and directors of local and state-wide nonprofits. The future of the practice will benefit from Elon Law graduates who will join the profession with an informed view of the professional service and leadership expectations of lawyers in the nonprofit sector. •
James is Professor of Law and Director of Leadership, Elon University School of Law. Prof. Rivers James has served on a number of local, state and national boards, including the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations and the National Conference of Bar Foundations. She previously served as President of the National Association of IOLTA Programs, and played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.
Snyder is a member of the Elon Law School Class of 2012. A graduate of Guilford College, Mr. Snyder is the Co-Director of Elon Law’s Pro-Bono Board and serves on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
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