Charity law is broadly defined as providing legal services in relation to setting up and running a charity (or a non-profit organisation). There are a range of rules specific to these types of organisations which need to be adhered to, including specialised issues relating to tax, fundraising and political activities.
Lawyers at a range of organisations often choose to get involved in charitable work regardless of their practice area – this is known as pro-bono work, and might include tasks such as providing legal advice to charities in areas like immigration or climate change. Top ranked firms in the pro-bono space include Hogan Lovells (a UK/US merger firm), Clifford Chance (a British Magic Circle firm) and Latham & Watkins (an elite US firm with a strong London presence). Some firms even count pro-bono work as billable hours for their solicitors. However, the majority of most lawyers’ time is still spent in their own practice area (at the firms listed above, this often means something at least vaguely corporate or financial in nature).
Lawyers specialising in charity work, however, are employed full-time to work on these kinds of charitable matters.
Charity lawyers can be found across a range of different organisations. First of all, you could be an in-house lawyer working at a charity. For example, you could hold a position like General Counsel at a charitable organisation such as Cancer Research or Save the Children.
Here, you would be expected to advise on a wide range of issues on a day-to-day basis, while also maintaining some specialised knowledge of your own charity’s niche. For instance, while in-house lawyers at both Cancer Research and Save the Children would need a solid understanding of contract law for the numerous agreements their organisations would be entering into, a Cancer Research lawyer would likely need specialised knowledge of biotech and patents relating to drug discovery, while a Save the Children lawyer may need specialised knowledge around immigration.
Other charity lawyers will choose to work within a law firm or Chambers, being contracted to provide external support to charitable organisations. While some larger corporate firms are active in this space (e.g. Eversheds, an international firm, being ranked within the Legal 500 tier list for charities), most law firms leading in this space will be smaller boutique firms. Bates Wells has become particularly well-known for their work as, primarily, a charity law firm, as has Stone King. If you’re looking at the barrister route, Radcliffe Chambers are ranked top for their work in the charity sector.
Lawyers working within the charity space are rarely in it for the money. They will certainly still earn respectable salaries (often some of the highest within their organisations if situated in-house), but charities are naturally always looking to avoid excess spending internally. Furthermore, charity lawyers are not generating profit in the same way that many others (e.g. those within an M&A deal) are, and so the opportunity for extra performance-based incentives in the form of bonuses, for example, are much lower.
That being said, those working at the highest level of charity law are still highly in-demand and so can still bring in high salaries (even if rarely on the same level as corporate work).
Charity Lawyers will need to complete a range of tasks, since the work tends to be very varied. At a smaller organisation, this might include everything from research into an ongoing problem (e.g. collating data on a growing issue the charity is fighting against to use as evidence in a court case) and drafting contracts (e.g. agreements between a charity and a supplier which it outsources some of its services with) to forming large-scale strategy (e.g. considering the implications of a merger with another charity from a legal perspective).
Charity lawyers naturally maintain a skillset broadly in line with many other lawyers, including points such as:
However, working in charity law does also require some more specialised skills. Having a deep understanding of the charity’s operations is a must, and actually maintaining a personal sympathy for the aims of the organisations you represent is something charity lawyers often feel they need to develop and demonstrate – more so than in other areas (for example an M&A lawyer representing a large international bank).
Charity law overlaps heavily with a range of other practice areas, and therefore provides ample opportunity for cross-practice area collaboration. If you’re situated within a law firm or Chambers, this might mean collaborating with other teams. If you’re in-house at a smaller charity, you might need to develop more of a rounded understanding yourself.
Here are a few examples:
The 2022 Charities Act was a major bill which clarified a number of points around charities in the England and Wales (see explanatory notes here). This Act made significant changes, including points such as giving charities more flexibility on their governing documents, producing a clearer framework on managing charity assets (especially land), and providing more power to the Charity Commission (which regulates charities in England and Wales).
The cost-of-living crisis in the UK has created the worst possible combination – leading to a reduction in donations received (as incomes are squeezed) and a subsequent higher demand for services, resulting in a vicious cycle. Charity lawyers will be exploring every possible route to reduce costs and maximise fundraising while staying within the boundaries of legislation.
As with many practice areas, Brexit also exerted a major impact. Many charities in the UK relied on EU funding to carry out their work, and so are now having to explore other routes of securing funding (a process which lawyers will be heavily involved in).
In short, charity law is an exciting, highly rewarding practice area which many aspiring lawyers will likely be drawn to. It is highly collaborative and incorporates a range of issues, while also offering opportunities to work both in-house and inside a law firm or Chambers.
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