I work in a non-profit law nirvana. My office is down the block and across the street from the Georgetown University Law Center. That in itself is no big deal, but the Law Center sponsors an annual conference, “Representing and Managing Tax Exempt Organizations,” and that is a big deal. Now in its 28th year, the conference has become the nation’s premier event for the lawyers, accountants and managers who make the tax-exempt sector work. Each spring, several hundred of them come to Washington, D.C., for two days of closely scheduled presentations, breakout sessions and networking events, all coordinated by the Law Center’s (believe it or not) Larry Center. He says the conference is the largest of the 20 national CLE programs he and his staff run each year. And, I’m pretty sure it is the largest such gathering anywhere.
The current soul of the conference is its chairman, Celia Roady, a partner at Morgan Lewis. She has been selecting the topics and the speakers since 1994, maintaining a delicate balance between the established and the emerging issues in tax-exempt law and practice. She told me she works on the program year-round and pays close attention to the evaluation forms filled out by the attendees of every session. If the topic is strong but the speaker is weak, that speaker won’t be back next year. Similarly, if the topic induces ennui, it also will be set aside. One of her innovations in response to the evaluations was to create a half-day primer on select topics (e.g., UBIT, non-profit governance, charity rules) the day before the conference for newcomers to the sector or for those who want to brush up on that year’s topic. If Roady is the soul, then Bruce R. Hopkins is the godfather of the conference. He started it. The well-known and well-published expert on tax-exempt organizations is now in Kansas City, Mo., but in 1983 he was a private practice lawyer in Washington, D.C. He was teaching CLE courses for the D.C. Bar and teaching as an adjunct at George Washington University’s law school (where I was a student of his) when he proposed the conference to Georgetown. The school thought Hopkins’ reputation would be a good draw and its own national reputation for tax law would fit nicely with a conference focused on tax-exemption issues. When asked how he came up with the idea, Hopkins simply said, “I just wanted to do it.” He said he didn’t do any market research and didn’t think he’d have much competition anyway.
Georgetown was correct about Hopkins’ draw: Hopkins told me nobody he asked to participate turned him down. He sought out government speakers, especially those from the Treasury Department (the IRS in particular) and Capitol Hill, because attendees from outside the D.C. Beltway would find access to them particularly valuable. Private practice lawyers were just as eager to get involved. When I suggested he was the reason for the acceptance rate, Hopkins demurred and facetiously cited “my magnetic personality” as a possible reason. He said Georgetown itself was a big attraction to speakers who could then accurately claim, “I taught at Georgetown Law School.”
As a frequent attendee (and occasional speaker), I can attest to the depth of the conference’s content, the extent of the support materials, the quality of its speakers and the variety of those in the audience. These days the audience is one-third lawyers and one-third accountants, and the rest are in-house managers of some kind, including lawyers. Hopkins, Roady and Center all agree this turnout is as it should be—the meeting was never intended only for lawyers. They also all agree that the trend of growth in the tax-exempt sector is likely to mean more attendees in the future. They’re probably right. That’s why it will be difficult finding an empty seat again next year.
Bruce D. Collins is corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN, based in Washington, D.C. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.