Nonprofit Law at Wake Forest University
Article Date: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Written By: Steven M. Virgil
I came to Wake Forest University School of Law in August 2008 to launch a new clinical program. This program became the Community Law Clinic, a full-service law firm for nonprofit organizations and small business owners that provides law students with a transactional practice experience. A large part of this clinic is focused on serving nonprofit organizations. Over the short time I have been at Wake Forest, I have come to know a great deal about the institution and the value that is placed on both training students to become Citizen Lawyers as well as playing the role of citizen itself. Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate, reflects the belief that what we do at our university matters not only for students and ourselves but also for everyone we live and work with, along with the professions we are members of.
Wake Forest University School of Law has assembled a great number of elements that law schools should have, in my view, to prepare those students who seek to advise and serve the nonprofit sector. While Wake Forest does not yet offer a large number of courses or clinical placements in the nonprofit sector, students who are interested in working with nonprofit organizations or as part of civil society, will find a substantial number of courses, clinics, and opportunities to explore their interest, develop practical skills, and prepare for practice after the bar.
Course Work: Wake Forest University offers a number of traditional courses connected to the nonprofit sector. These include a survey course on nonprofit corporate law that covers the organization, governance, and operations of nonprofit organizations. Comparative courses on civil society are also offered, allowing students to see the U.S. nonprofit sector in light of both international NGOs and operating NGOs under other systems of law. In addition, a growing number of courses are available to students interested in the sector’s activities. These include specialized courses on public-interest topics, such as environmental law, arts law, consumer law, human rights, election law, and civil rights, among many others.
Clinical Opportunities: The Community Law Clinic provides a full range of legal services to nonprofit organizations. Under faculty supervision, students provide legal assistance to nonprofit organizations that are confronting legal questions. Typical questions involve employment law, contract review, and tax compliance issues. Students gain first-hand experience working with their clients and are asked to attend board meetings and learn the details of the organization’s day-to-day work so that they may better understand the organization’s mission and the needs that it serves. Since 2009, more than 100 students have worked with more than 200 nonprofit organizations in North Carolina.
Cross-disciplinary experiential courses: A meaningful understanding of the nonprofit sector requires a cross-disciplinary approach. Wake Forest offers unique cross-disciplinary experiential programs that place law students with students from the Graduate School of Business and the School of Divinity. As teams, these students work to address community needs, by, for example, working with local neighborhood associations to identify barriers to asset development and propose solutions that may be implemented through nonprofit organizations. Similar cross-disciplinary programs are offered through the University’s program in Nicaragua, where law, medicine, and divinity students take part in a multi-disciplinary service learning course each spring that seeks to lead law students to a better understanding of their professional identity.
Pro bono activities: In Fall 2009, Wake Forest law students launched the Pro Bono Project. This effort coordinates student interest in pro bono service during law school with the needs of individuals and community-based organizations. Students work with attorneys engaged in pro bono cases to provide assistance with research, writing, and other areas where they can be of value. Through the Pro Bono Project, Wake Forest law students are working with nonprofit, public-interest law firms, nonprofit corporations, and individual clients.
Nonprofit Capacity Building: Nonprofit organizations operate in an increasingly complex environment, and much of this complexity is due to legal and regulatory requirements. The School of Law has developed a series of programs to aid in the capacity development of operating nonprofits in our community. Programs focused on governance, lobbying, political activity, joint ventures, and employment law are offered on a regular basis to board members and employees of nonprofit corporations. Taught by Wake Forest faculty, these programs bring the expertise and insight of seasoned professionals to the service of our nonprofit leaders.
The range of courses, clinics, and programs offered at Wake Forest University School of Law contains some things that have been part of Wake Forest for many years. A large number of these initiatives, however, have more recently begun under Dean Blake Morant’s leadership. Given the success each of these efforts has enjoyed, it is likely that our school will grow additional programs in the future that focus on the unique aspects of the nonprofit sector. In many ways, the School of Law is more widely becoming an anchor institution in our community, a place of resources and leadership for the public
Virgil is the director of the Institute for Public Engagement and Associate Clinical Professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.
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