Q&A with: Arthur Rieman, Managing Attorney,
The Law Firm for Non-Profits
Q: When people first call you, what are they looking for?
A: It may be something as simple as: “Can you help me to set up a non-profit?” It may be a board member of an organization who calls concerned that the organization is about to enter into a complex transaction and she needs to know the legal consequences, or perhaps something just doesn’t seem right to her. Other times it’s the executive director of a non-profit being investigated by the IRS or the state Attorney General.
Whatever it is, usually a third party (maybe an accountant, or a board member, another attorney or a consultant doing work for the non-profit) has said to the person who ultimately calls us: “You need to talk to an expert.”
Q: How did you end up as an attorney specializing in non-profits?
A: It actually started as a child — I wanted to be part of something that made a difference in the world. I started volunteering while in school. In business school, I took classes in non-profit and arts management. Before I took over The Law Firm for Non-Profits, I always looked for law firms that had and demonstrated a commitment to doing pro bono work.
Q: What makes you and your firm unique?
A: I have been Board President (of a non-profit) and I have first-hand experience in how non-profits work. I have been part of their struggles and helped make positive changes. Like my colleagues in my firm, I have real-world experience in the non-profit sector. Different from other firms, our knowledge and experience of running a non-profit is real-world experience — not theoretical or from “arms’ length.”
This ground level experience gives us the ability to relate to and understand our clients’ needs from their perspective. We are told time and again that this understanding is very different from what our clients’ experience with a typical lawyer might be. In this way, we become trusted advisors to our clients, transcending the purely “legal” role. We consider it a great compliment when clients tell us “you don’t seem like a lawyer.”
Q: How are you able to relate to your clients?
A: To give the best possible legal advice, I always want to first know the context of the client’s question, concern or situation. I want to know the full story, to understand their objectives, vision and history. This way, I can develop and analyze a client’s options even beyond the law, steering the client in the right direction and using the law as a tool for helping them achieve their objective.
With our breadth of experience, we generally know something about the field our clients are in. It also helps that we are well-read and are active in our own communities.
So, for example, if a client comes to the firm representing a search-dog rescue operation, I already know something very tangible about their work as I am involved in rock-climbing, a pursuit in which search and rescue can be life-saving. Being part of the “real world” is something that resonates with people and it is also something important to us. When we say we help good people do good things, we really mean it.
Q: How do passion and commitment play into your role with your clients?
A: Most of our clients are very passionate about what they do. People get involved in non-profits because they care…they are genuinely dedicated. Indeed, for the people who work with non-profits, it’s often not just a job but a life choice. When you work with people like that, it makes you want to do a better job because they are already so committed. You really want to help them succeed. It is not just about giving advice, it is being a very real part of the good work they’ve set out to do.
It’s really wonderful when a client says to us: “You really helped us. You really made a difference.” Or, when we read something about one of our clients in the news and see the impact they are having. We feel good knowing that we had a role in making something good happen.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how you work with others as part of a larger team?
A: Yes, we often work closely with other attorneys, accountants and other advisors on the non-profit “team.” Accountants, bankers, lawyers and other professionals regularly refer nonprofits to the firm. They do it because they know me and my colleagues, and they know they can trust that our work will be high quality and will keep their clients happy.
We also make many referrals, sometimes dozens in a week. With our experience, we know many excellent professionals we can refer our clients to with complete confidence. I am also a member of California’s premier professional networking group, ProVisors. This affiliation gives me direct access to hundreds of additional respected advisors whom I can consult with and, when appropriate, refer our clients to. Being part of this and other networks is a huge benefit to our clients and to their non-profit organizations.