Nonprofit Clinic Advises Charlottesville-Area Organizations, Offers Hands-on Training for Law Students
The Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates Inc. needed a lawyer to review its bylaws and articles of incorporation, as well as draft a lease to possibly rent out parking spaces.
Rather than hiring a law firm , which could be potentially expensive, Piedmont CASA — which trains volunteers to advocate on behalf of abused and neglected children in local courts — turned to students in the University of Virginia School of Law's Nonprofit Clinic.
"I have retained attorneys for Piedmont CASA at different times over the years and the rates are $250 to $450 an hour," said Ruth Stone, president of Piedmont CASA. "The dollar benefit to CASA is just tremendous when we can have the Nonprofit Law Clinic help us with these legal issues."
The Nonprofit Clinic, which is offered in conjunction with the Legal Aid Justice Center, provides pro bono legal assistance to a number of nonprofit and charitable groups across the Charlottesville region, including organizations dealing with housing, health care, children, senior citizens and more.
The clinic's students advise and work directly with nonprofit boards to provide legal health "checkups," as well as other matters such as initial formation, establishing tax-exempt status, charitable solicitation, state and local taxation, contracts and ongoing legal compliance.
"If you're a big foundation and you have a lot of resources, then all of this isn't that big of a deal," said Tara Boyd, one of the clinic's two instructors and a partner at the Charlottesville office of LeClairRyan. "But if you're a little nonprofit here in Charlottesville, you may need some extra help. You may not even know you need some extra help."
Local nonprofits benefit from the free legal assistance, while the clinic's students benefit from the practical experience of working with clients whose legal concerns are similar to those of businesses.
"A lot of UVA students go on to work in big firms and they may not get a lot of hands-on client experience for quite a few years," Boyd said. "The clinic gives them skills so that on their first day they can do a whole lot more than the average top-10 law school grad."
Pedro Bermeo, a third-year law student and clinic participant, said he joined the yearlong clinic primarily as a way to gain experience that would be valuable in his future career as a corporate attorney.
"We get more real one-on-one time with clients in the clinic than law students get at a typical summer job," he said. "Being able to talk with clients, respond to their emails, to meet with them first hand, being the point person for contact with the client — has been great. It's allowed me to do what senior attorneys do at a law firm."
As an added bonus, Bermeo said, the clinic's work is benefiting the Charlottesville community.
"Not only does it provide us, the students, with real-life experience, it [also lets us] work with some great organizations," he said. "The clients are always thankful that we're there. Most of the time they've never had anybody take a look at their documents to make sure they comply with the law."
Bub Windle '11, who participated in the Nonprofit Clinic while at UVA Law and now works in the white collar group at the law firm Bingham McCutchen in Washington, D.C., said his experience with the clinic provided him with a foundation for understanding most any case.
"It's one thing to learn corporations law," he said. "It's an entirely different thing to have pored over a state's corporations statute, drafted articles of incorporation, and learned, from the inside out, about the many legal issues facing businesses."
The Nonprofit Clinic originated as a pro bono project but was established in 2009 as the Law School's 20th clinic.
Allen Hench, the clinic's co-instructor and founder of the pro bono project, said the nonprofits frequently need the clinic's assistance.
"We often find that a client's method of governance may be inconsistent with law, or [the organization's] own bylaws or governing documents," he said. "For example, we have discovered that a client, to the client's surprise, has strayed from what is required. It is not all that unusual; these nonprofits get very committed to their mission and delivering service."
The clinic is particularly notable, Hench said, because it is focuses on transactional law, as opposed to the litigation or appeals work found in the Law School's other clinic offerings.
"This is a 'real world' experience in the best sense — real work, with real people, in real life, in real time, on real transactions and decisions, that will make a real difference," he said.
Third-year law student and clinic participant Christina Leaton said she signed up to gain experience for her future career in either litigation or corporate law.
"I think the nonprofit clinic will be great experience for me after I graduate from law school," she said. "Not only [in] dealing with managers on a daily basis and getting used to logging my time, but also interacting with clients and [addressing] the real-life issues they have."
Leaton is currently conducting a legal health assessment of a Charlottesville nonprofit, a task that includes analyzing the organization's articles and bylaws for compliance with Virginia law and IRS requirements, as well as a review of its operations and fundraising activities.
"The clients have been so interesting," she said. "Neat Charlottesville connections, stimulating work — and I've learned a lot of basics about nonprofits that I feel like I'll remember after law school."