Lawyers Leading Nonprofits

Health and Law 3
Illustration by David Plunkert

On a sweltering September day in 2011, Afam Onyema, JD ’07, took a walk through the austere wards of the Regina Caeli Hospital in Awka, Nigeria. Seven years earlier, he had started classes at Stanford Law School, intent on pursuing a career in the corporate sports world. But four years after graduation, he was on a very different mission—leading a nonprofit organization, the GEANCO Foundation, aimed at giving impoverished Nigerians life-changing medical care.  •  Seventeen patients at the hospital that week were slated to receive complex orthopedic surgeries from a visiting team of American specialists—procedures they never could have had were it not for Onyema’s full-time efforts to fund and launch the nonprofit. Among the patients was a 20-year-old whose leg, and livelihood, had been crushed in a motorbike accident. “I thought to myself, tomorrow he is going to be wheeled into surgery; in a few months he’ll be able to use that bike again as a taxi, his sister will be back in school, and his life will be made right again,” Onyema recalled in a recent phone interview from his one-person office in Los Angeles.  “At that moment, I realized that all the decisions I had made up to that point—to go to Stanford Law School, to turn down offers from traditional law firms and do this work—were worthwhile.”

Early enthusiasm from classmates and professors at Stanford Law, particularly in donations, encouraged him to consider the career leap of faith. And the lawyering tools that Onyema honed at Stanford and still uses every day have proved invaluable in launching and running GEANCO, he says, including skills in contract drafting, negotiation, and public speaking. “Fundamentally what I do, when I walk into a potential donor’s office or speak to a group, is make an argument just like any lawyer,” he explained. “I have to be zealous and advocate as well as possible because my client is that boy who can’t ride the bike and help his family.” Equally important has been Stanford Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP, see sidebar), which, he stresses, allowed him the financial freedom to start the nonprofit.

In recent years, Stanford Law School has focused considerable resources on helping graduates like Onyema pursue careers in public service. Chief among these efforts was the re-launch of the public service program in 2007 as the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law, with a substantial infusion of new support and a doubling of staffing. Since then, opportunities for Stanford Law students interested in public service have been dramatically expanded through its pro botlawno program, career counseling, summer internship funding, and job placement services. Last year alone, 27 third-year Stanford Law students, about 15 percent of the class, received specialized training as Public Interest Fellows—more than double the number 10 years ago. Nearly 200 of Stanford Law’s alumni working in government, nonprofit, and small private public interest law firms are receiving financial help through the school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

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Deborah L. Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, and Diane T. Chin, associate dean for public service and public interest law (Photo by Timothy Archibald)

Diane T. Chin, who oversees the Levin Center as associate dean for public service and public interest law, has noticed a steady increase in students interested in pursuing careers in the nonprofit sector. And opportunities are opening up too. She notes that while the past decade’s economic downturn hit the nonprofit job market hard, law graduates are beginning to step into positions vacated by baby boomers who pioneered progressive nonprofits in the 1960s and 1970s. And experienced JDs are well-positioned to take on leadership roles in nonprofits and apply their legal skills to help tackle important social challenges.

The path to leadership varies, she adds, with some graduates starting their careers in junior positions and rising through the ranks and others joining law firms or clerking first and then moving into higher positions. Still other alumni are drawing on their passions and lawyering skills to create nonprofit organizations from scratch.

“Our training as lawyers to bring a broad perspective and analysis to problem solving lends itself well to the nonprofit and advocacy sector,” Chin observes. “We can look at issues from a variety of angles, organize a response quickly but thoroughly, and think on our feet. Lawyer-leaders in the field are also asked to communicate in a compelling and persuasive manner, in the courthouse or in the media or before a rulemaking body. Through the breadth of experiential options our students enjoy, they are poised to bring just these skills to the nonprofit world.”

Adding to challenges of a tight nonprofit job market are concerns about low pay and prestige, which can be stumbling blocks for some students interested in pursuing careers in public service and nonprofits. Deborah L. Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, frequently counsels students about the pros and cons of nonprofits in her role as director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession at SLS and the Program on Social Entrepreneurship, a joint program of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and the Haas Center on Public Service. She acknowledges that “a lot of the public interest jobs that they can get right out of law school are not high status.” But she also assures students that nonprofit careers can be rich in “psychic income,” pointing to studies showing that the happiest lawyers are those who believe in the social value of their work. In a multi-decade survey of University of Michigan law school alumni, for example, 71 percent of lawyers in government and public interest law said they were quite positive about their careers, compared with 59 percent in law firms and 63 percent in corporate legal departments. Indeed, public interest lawyer satisfaction rates are “right up there with law professors,” Rhode says. “I just try to give my students every possible measure of support I can—and tell them to be willing to take some risks.”

Laura Weidman Powers, JD/MBA ’10, experienced some of those trade-offs firsthand in 2012, when she left a Silicon Valley high-tech startup to launch CODE2040, a nonprofit aimed at boosting the low number of African-American and Latino computer programmers. To date, the San Francisco-based organization has placed 50 college students in closely mentored 10-week internships at some of Silicon Valley’s best-known companies, including Facebook and LinkedIn. Another 40 interns will be starting work this summer.

Powers acknowledges that her first few months as CODE2040’s CEO were rough. While her new husband, also a Stanford Law grad, had gone to work for a traditional law firm and had a lively cohort of young colleagues, she was plugging away alone, first at home and then in office space donated by a friend she knew from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Now that her staff is up to 15, the social aspect of her work is much better. And she loves the time she spends traveling to colleges, raising public awareness and funds, working out contracts with employers, conferring with the organization’s pro bono counsel, and hand-selecting “clients” she really respects—talented young minority computer programmers from around the country. One of her favorite student interns last summer was a freshman from the University of Maryland, a young African-American woman who was placed at Jawbone, a company specializing in consumer technology and wearable devices. “The experience helped her realize that she loved entrepreneurship,” Powers says. “Today, she has a whole network of people excited to help her break through and succeed.”

Derek Gaubatz, JD ’97, is another alumnus serving people close to his heart—even if they are scattered to all ends of the earth. As general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, he looks out for the welfare of more than 5,000 Christian missionaries working in some of the most dangerous places on earth—150 countries in all.  “We have a crisis action team to address situations where our people run into problems with legal authorities, vigilantes, or even terrorist organizations,” he explains. He also spends time ensuring that the missionaries have the resources they need—everything from food and medical supplies to startup funds for small churches and micro businesses.

Gaubatz’s commitment to his religion deepened during the summer after his freshman year in college, when he survived a horrific automobile accident in England. He went to law school hoping for a career that would combine his faith and law. After graduating from Stanford Law, he started out clerking for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. He then became director of litigation at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal and educational institute that works to protect the free expression of all faiths. He was inspired to become a member of the Southern Baptist’s Mission Board in 2007, after joining a Baptist church in Washington, D.C., and serving on his own short-term mission in central Asia.

Gaubatz says he enjoys the intellectual side of his work, traveling to remote places at least two months a year and digging into complex problems involving legal systems around the world. He also gets personal satisfaction out of helping others who share his worldview. “In litigation, if you win a case, that’s exciting,” he reflects. “But the real heroes in this organization are the people out in the field. There’s an expression that we use in the missions: ‘Holding the ropes.’ It goes back to the days of coal mines, when miners were let down into the dark pits. I think of myself as holding the legal ropes for those out there who are risking their lives.” The reward, he says, is “sleeping well at night, knowing that I’m always acting consistently with my values.”

On a warm spring evening in Oakland, California, the neatly uniformed eighth-graders at KIPP Bridge Charter School are putting in some extra time on their math homework. The weekday support sessions at this free public charter middle school, along with an intensive two-week summer program, are hard work—but the results clearly are worth it. More than 80 percent of KIPP’s students have gone on to college, compared with 45 percent of low-income students nationally.

KIPP Bridge is one of 162 KIPP schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C., preparing students in underserved communities for success in college. Nolan Highbaugh, JD ’00, is general counsel for the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, which, among other things, recruits and trains school leaders to open and operate KIPP schools, evaluates school performance, and facilitates the exchange of effective practices across the KIPP schools network. “If you had asked me when I was leaving Stanford what I would be doing, there’s no way I would have said this,” he says, laughing. Indeed, his first job out of law school was in the public finance department of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP, just up the street from his current office. But one day he ran into an old friend, KIPP’s then-general counsel, who told him about KIPP’s mission.

Highbaugh was intrigued. As the first in his own family to earn a college degree, he had spent many volunteer hours tutoring kids just like that. He also appreciated KIPP’s traditional approach to education. “I liked the fact that there were no gimmicks; just hard work,” he recalls.  “The theory is that any kid provided with a high-quality education and support can succeed.”

Since joining the KIPP Foundation in 2003, Highbaugh has worked to ensure that the tax-exempt organization and KIPP schools are doing everything by the book, whether they’re financing new facilities or hiring new teachers. “All of our principals are outstanding educators,” he explains, “but many of them are new to running corporations. So, for example, I try to make sure that as they hire staff and manage people, they understand the laws surrounding that, so they’re less likely to find themselves subject to employment claims that would take them away from their focus: educating kids.”

Like Highbaugh, Lisalyn Jacobs, JD ’90, didn’t exactly plan her route to the nonprofit world. Though her Panamanian-born father, an Episcopal minister, was active in the U.S. civil rights movement, her original intention was to pay off her student loans while working at a traditional for-profit law firm. Then in her third year of law school she sent in a last-minute application and won a women’s public policy fellowship at Georgetown University. Her fellowship work at the National Partnership for Women and Families turned out to be so compelling, that after completing it, plus three more years in private practice, she decided to take a job at the Department of Justice under Janet Reno. After several more years of consulting, she wound up at Legal Momentum, a New York City-based organization formerly known as the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Nolan Highbaugh, JD ’00, general counsel for the KIPP Foundation, visiting a KIPP school in Oakland, Calif. (Photo by Timothy Archibald)

Looking back, Jacobs says her Stanford Law School classes—particularly Commercial Rights and Constitutional Wrongs, taught by Professors Charles Lawrence and Patricia Williams, and Self-Help and Lay Lawyering, taught by Professor Gerald López—prepared her well for her current position as Legal Momentum’s vice president for governmental relations. Working out of an office in Washington, D.C., she frequently connects with leaders of grassroots organizations to better understand women’s social and economic needs and personally drafts new legislation to advance their agendas. She also spends a lot of time on Capitol Hill, lobbying U.S. senators, members of the House of Representatives, and their staffs. While the work is intense—“I call myself the head masochist in charge,” she jokes—it also has deeply satisfying moments.

One of Jacobs’ finest hours came in 2013, when, after contentious debate, Congress finally reauthorized the 20-year-old Violence Against Women Act. The American Bar Association recently announced that Jacobs would be among 20 lawyers honored at its mid-year meeting this August for their contributions to its passage.

“I’ve been doing this job so long,” she says, “I can point to provisions in that law for which I was responsible.”

Lisa Jacobs, photographed at her home in Arlington VA, 25 March 2015, for Stanford Lawyer Magazine.
Lisalyn Jacobs, JD ’90, vice president for governmental relations at Legal Momentum, at her home office (Photo by Mike Morgan)

One of the newest provisions gives Native American communities, for the first time, the power to prosecute non-native domestic abusers at the felony level, so long as the defendants are living in Native American country and in intimate partnerships or marriages with Native American women. “There was not a lot of certainty, until the eleventh hour, that we were going to get a bill that had the tribal provision in it,” Jacobs recalls. “Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of the Republican leadership, played a pivotal role. It’s a good example of how much happens after we present draft legislation.” She also takes pride in her role working to combat sexual assault on college campuses and in the creation of a national resource center to help employers, such as the National Football League, deal with issues of domestic and sexual violence.

When Greg Lukianoff, JD ’00, was an undergraduate at American University in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s, he imagined that he would become a globetrotting news reporter.

Somewhere along the way though, he decided that the laws protecting freedom of the press were even more interesting than the press itself. “Nothing teaches you more about the consequences of limiting free speech than being a journalist,” he notes wryly. “People come into your office every day, trying to rationalize why you shouldn’t print this or that.”

The son of a Russian refugee father who felt there was “nobility in being brutally honest,” Lukianoff says he never would have considered applying to Stanford were it not for the law school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program. He recalls being particularly inspired by a course in constitutional law taught by former SLS dean Kathleen Sullivan, and by an internship with the ACLU.  For a short time after graduation he worked in private practice as a patent lawyer. Then Sullivan recommended him for his dream job: a position as legal director of the then-tiny Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He became president in 2006 and now leads the nearly 30-person organization, which has offices in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

Founded in 1999, FIRE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aimed at defending the rights to freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience at America’s colleges and universities. The group is especially keen to challenge school codes that ban speech deemed offensive on any number of grounds or that limit expression to often-small and out-of-the-way “free speech zones.” Among its well-publicized efforts was a 2013 lawsuit filed by a Modesto Junior College student who was stopped by administrators from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day. (The incident was caught on video.) The college, in California’s Central Valley, did have a small free speech zone available for use, but the student was told that zone was booked well into the future. The college eventually agreed to a $50,000 settlement and modification of its policies. In just the past year and a half, FIRE has coordinated nine lawsuits against campus speech codes at colleges across the country.

Lukianoff says he uses his Stanford Law skills every day on the job, writing about law for a popular audience, penning amicus briefs, working with litigating attorneys, evaluating case submissions and incidents he learns about through the student media, giving interviews, blogging, writing books (two so far), teaching at George Mason University, and traveling around the country to raise funds and awareness of First Amendment issues. Coming from a modest background, he says that learning to live on a nonprofit salary wasn’t too difficult for him.  Building a strong organization—and developing a thick skin to defend it—was harder. Though he generally is received well on campuses, a panel he did at NYU, for example, on the right to print cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, was less friendly. “In this, or really any job where you work on controversial issues, you have to adjust to the fact that there are some people who are going to hate you,” he says. Still, he adds, “This is what I’ve wanted to do since before I even entered law school.  I am really thankful that Stanford helped me to follow this path.”  SL