Non-profits welcome women

Women lawyers are seeing equal opportunity in the non-profit sector.

The first person I wrote about for this column was a woman general counsel. Her name was Karen Lipton, and at the time she was the general counsel of the American Red Cross.

The column appeared in March 1992—nearly 20 years ago—and was only the second I had written for this magazine. Back then, I was on an epistolary journey in search of my peers who practiced at the non-profit bar. I was miffed that nearly all of the ink spilled about in-house counsel was on behalf of those working for the big for-profit corporations, and most of them were in New York or Chicago.

Almost never did I see the legal media pay attention to the many accomplished inhouse lawyers around the country who worked for non-profits, including the universities, hospitals, big charities and trade associations, despite the fact that the non-profit sector even then represented a huge chunk of our economy, as it still does. I set out to right the imbalance in these pages.

So, for many of those early columns I sought out various in-house counsel for some well-known and not-so-well-known non-profit organizations to feature them and their personal stories. As time went on, the column focused on a much broader array of topics involving us non-profit lawyers, and from time to time I would again feature the work and lives of other colleagues who caught my attention.

But until this column you are reading now, the gender of those colleagues was never a part of the story. Until the moment my editor suggested I focus on women non-profit counsel this month, I can honestly say that of all the subjects I ever considered for my attention in this space, that was not one of them. This is not to say, of course, that I think giving editorial attention to women corporate counsel is somehow inappropriate. It is to say, rather, that nothing in my 25 years experience as a non-profit in-house counsel ever caused me to think the fact of a woman general counsel was a particularly noteworthy subject. Given the sensitivities of these times I guess I must hasten to say that there are many women non-profit general counsel who deserve such attention and have done newsworthy things. Indeed, I’ve given them such attention myself (e.g., the aforementioned Karen Lipton and others). My point, which I hope is obvious, is that at least among us non-profit lawyers, a woman general counsel is a rather ordinary thing.

I don’t have any statistics at hand to support what I’m about to say, but for as long as I’ve been a non-profit lawyer, I think at least half of my non-profit counsel colleagues, if not more, have been women. Even though the legal profession had been traditionally male-dominated, I was not surprised at the large proportion of female general counsel I encountered for at least three reasons. First, throughout my six years of law school (the late ’70s and mid-’80s) half my classmates were women, so to see women holding the top legal jobs when I got out was not cognitively dissonant. Second, I was working in the cable television industry at the time, which was then and still is today very receptive to women at all levels, from CEO and below. In fact, before I even got to law school, the general counsel of the cable industry’s trade association where I worked was a woman.

Finally, I’ve spent my entire career in the non-profit sector. The very nature of the sector tends to be attractive to women either because of its mission focus or because of its greater flexibility than the for-profit companies (and especially the tyranny of the billable hour of law firms) in accommodating career interruptions occasioned by motherhood.

So, I really don’t have much of interest to say about women non-profit counsel, unless you think the ordinary is extraordinary.

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Bruce D. Collins

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