Teaching Nonprofit Law at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law
Article Date: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Written By: Thomas A. Kelley III
Before I began teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in the late 1990s, there was a small course offered by an adjunct professor on The Law of Nonprofit Organizations. Twenty or so students signed up each year, and there was only one nonprofit law textbook available. In the intervening years, the nonprofit sector in the United States has grown in size and complexity, and law students’ interest in the field has kept pace.
Today, The Law of Nonprofit Organizations, which I teach, typically enrolls 50 law students plus 15 or 20 students from other professional schools across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus including the schools of Business, Social Work, Public Health, and Urban and Regional Planning. I take a practice-oriented approach, ensuring not only that my students learn about the legal doctrines and theories that affect nonprofit organizations, but that they are ready to produce the necessary corporate documents and tax forms. For example, each student in the class must file mock Articles of Incorporation and Forms 1023 (the main IRS form for applying for federal charitable tax-exempt status) and each must review nonprofit corporate bylaws, conflict-of-interest policies, and other foundational corporate documents.
Law students can continue their intellectual and practical exploration by participating in UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus-wide Nonprofit Leadership Certificate Program, which requires them to take classes at other professional schools in diverse topics such as Marketing and Fundraising for Nonprofit Organizations, Financial Management for Nonprofits, and Sustainable Development. By the time law students complete their certificate requirements, they have been exposed to a broad range of nonprofit issues that will permit them to act as effective counselors to the sector.
Law students can further develop their nonprofit practice skills by participating in Carolina Law’s experiential learning programs. Through the school’s Externship Program, students have the opportunity to spend fifteen hours per week during a semester working in nonprofit organizations under the careful tutelage of practicing attorneys. Students can choose from a broad array of nonprofit organizations including Research Triangle Institute, Southern Environmental Law Center, Self Help, and the North Carolina Small Business Technology and Development Center.
Finally, law students can deepen and broaden their nonprofit experience by enrolling in Carolina Law’s Community Development Law (CDL) Clinic. In the CDL Clinic, third-year students work under faculty supervision to provide non-litigation legal representation to North Carolina nonprofit organizations. The range of legal tasks the students take on is as broad and diverse as the nonprofit sector. To take this year’s CDL Clinic as an example, projects include working on nonprofit corporate formation, applications for federal tax exemption, Unrelated Business Income Tax matters, a complex merger of two existing nonprofit organizations, land-use planning (including zoning and special use permits) for a large nonprofit located in a rural community, employment law, corporate governance advice for religious organizations, charitable solicitation licenses, and counseling regarding doing business in foreign jurisdictions. In recent years, CDL Clinic students have been called upon frequently to advise social enterprises (i.e., organizations that wish to accomplish charitable outcomes while at the same time generating profits) on whether to form as nonprofits, for-profits, or some combination of the two.
Next year, the CDL Clinic and its students will participate in the Social Innovation Incubator, an exciting new initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill. Each year, student-led social enterprises from across campus will compete for places in the Incubator. The winners will receive a small amount of start-up funding and office space in the historic (and recently renovated) Campus Y. They will also receive business and legal counsel from a panel of experts including CDL Clinic law faculty and students.
The nonprofit sector has grown in size, dynamism, and importance in recent years. Carolina Law has kept pace and now offers classes, externships, a clinical program, and innovative partnerships as tools for training lawyers to meet the sector’s
legal needs. •
Kelley is Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
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