2 January 2008
18 January 2013
22 May 2000
22 March 2004
24 July 2006
6 September 1998
Whats it all about?
A morning spent sipping tea with a group of homeopaths; an afternoon spent negotiating with the Privy Council. Charity lawyers can enjoy enormous variety in both the organisations they work with and the law they apply.
Charities and other not-for-profit organisations cover a remarkable range of activity: combating climate change, preserving jet planes, promoting the arts from the Royal Opera House to bugle music in Cornwall, supporting the elderly, monitoring internet content and much more. The organisations involved may be established in a variety of legal forms, from an unincorporated association established informally in minutes to an Act of Parliament. They range from small volunteer groups with no paid staff and an income of a few hundred pounds to charities with incomes of more than 100m, highly developed staff teams and arrays of professional advisers.
The charity team at Russell-Cooke, where I am a partner, provides advice on most aspects of life in the voluntary sector, from day-to-day issues, such as problems with staff or an unreasonable photocopier lease, to strategic and constitutional issues, such as a merger or restructuring.
The working culture
The best-known firms have dedicated teams of charity lawyers. But many charity lawyers work alone or in small teams, dividing their time between advising organisations directly and supporting colleagues with the charity law aspects of particular transactions.
A trainee can expect to share in the stimulating variety described above. There is no standard job description for a trainee in charity law. However, most trainees can expect to be involved in: advising on the legal forms available to new organisations; preparing and amending constitutions for trusts, associations and companies (including community interest companies); applying to the Charity Commission to register charities and obtain a range of regulatory orders; advising on contracts with fundraisers and commercial partners; establishing trading subsidiaries; and assisting with the broad range of other commercial queries with a charity law element.
A genuine interest in, and commitment to, the voluntary sector is critical. Charities are keenly aware of the cost of legal advice. They do not want to be referred to different lawyers for every aspect of a problem and they want to be satisfied that legal advice is either necessary or the most effective way of achieving their aims. This is a great deal easier if you understand what the organisation is seeking to achieve and have some knowledge of non-legal developments in the sector.
The public can be quick to express concern where expenses seem excessive, while trustees and other volunteers are very aware of the effort involved in generating income. Knowledge of the sector makes it easier to identify those occasions on which the aims of your client may be best served by a pragmatic approach and those where more detailed legal advice is essential.
The legal skills required are broad-ranging. A charity lawyer must be familiar with a large number of issues that charities face regularly. The precise mix will vary, but commonly include: the Charity Commissions regulatory powers; fundraising; lotteries; licensing; contracts; company law; trading, tax and VAT; intellectual property; and employment law. Against this background there are opportunities to specialise by developing technical knowledge or focusing on particular areas of the sector.
The easiest way to learn about the sector is to get involved. There are volunteer opportunities to suit most people, from fundraising to being a trustee, and a few organisations offer internships or shadowing schemes for graduates.
It is an exciting time to be a charity lawyer. The Charities Act 2006, which is being introduced in phases during 2007 and 2008, makes a number of significant changes, including a statutory description of charitable purposes, a new public benefit test and a new legal form, the Charitable Incorporated Organisation. At the same time, the Companies Act 2006 is introducing changes that will affect the large number of charities established as companies. For an insight into current developments in the sector, see Sector News at the Charity Commission or the Charity Law Association.