Editor’s Note: The author, Don Kramer, is an attorney with expertise in tax exempt organization law. Do you agree with what he has to say in response to the question? Disagree? Sound off below! Also, Don enjoys taking questions from his CharityChannel peers, so if you have a question that you’d like him to address—not as legal advice, but as commentary about the law—be sure to let him know via the comment box below, as well.
Question: The primary mission of our nonprofit membership organization is to end domestic violence. We provide direct services to victims, but not legal representation. Several of our directors are family lawyers who occasionally represent offenders in domestic violence protection order cases and resulting criminal cases. Some of our members feel this is contrary to, and therefore a violation of, our mission. Some also feel it is a violation of the canons of ethics for the attorneys to represent offenders if they are committed to our mission. Is there any merit in either argument, and, if so, do we need to exclude family and criminal lawyers from our Board?
Answer: I admire the zealousness of your members, but what is the purpose of your board? Most organizations want a board that brings a broad and diverse set of backgrounds and experience that can help inform discussions of how the organization can best pursue its mission. Family lawyers who see both sides of the domestic abuse situation can bring a unique perspective to the discussions. To preclude them from the discussion may deprive you of insights that could substantially increase your ability to deal with your issues.
It would be a great mistake to assume that a lawyer who represents people accused of domestic violence (even if some of them are guilty) have a conflict with your mission. It is like saying that criminal defense lawyers have an ethical conflict with their clients unless they favor crime and oppose crime prevention activities. Everyone has a right to representation in our society, and we should not automatically ascribe the characteristics of clients to their lawyers. Some of the greatest American lawyers have, at great personal cost, represented unpopular clients and causes. Our system of justice demands it.
Obviously your members will get to vote on the directors and can make a judgment of whether a particular lawyer candidate is appropriate for the board. But to arbitrarily disqualify anyone who has represented a person on “the other side” of your issue (especially if their clients have been falsely accused) would, in my opinion, diminish your ability to do your job.
The Fine Print...Although this article discusses an aspect of the law of tax-exempt organizations, neither the author nor CharityChannel Press is rendering legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is formed between the reader and the author or between the reader and CharityChannel Press. A qualified attorney should be consulted on all important questions of law.
About the Contributor: Don Kramer
Don Kramer is editor and publisher of Don Kramer’s Nonprofit Issues®, a national newsletter of "Nonprofit Law You Need to Know." He writes and lectures frequently on nonprofit legal issues, including a daily question and answer feature on Twitter @DonKramer .
Don is chair of the Nonprofit Law Group at the Philadelphia law firm of Montgomery, McCracken, LLP. He has worked with nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes, helping structure start-up situations and restructure multi-organizational foundations, health and educational systems. He counsels on a wide range of corporate, governance, tax, real estate, charitable giving and other nonprofit issues. Mr. Kramer has more than 40 years of experience dealing with the concerns of nonprofit organizations, not only as a lawyer, but also as a teacher, writer, publisher, and board member.
He also serves on the Boards of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, the Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement and the Philadelphia Fire Department Historical Association. Don has taught a course on nonprofit organization law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Eastern University and currently teaches a similar course for the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A graduate of Princeton University, he earned an LL.B. degree from Harvard Law School.