Champions of the charities

For many legal professionals in the charity and voluntary sector, low pay, cramped conditions and poor administrative back-up is the reward for helping those who need help most.

Expertise in charity law can command big fees. But for all but the very largest charities, the legal work associated with running a charity as a corporate entity is normally handled by private practice firms.

And according to Sebastian Wilberforce, assistant secretary of the Charity Law Association, it is likely that the bulk of work dealing with the corporate governance of charities will remain with outside firms for the foreseeable future. Most lawyers working for charities find themselves dealing with the practical problems of their client base, rather than the intricacies of charity law, he says.

Wilberforce is a case in point. He trained to be a solicitor after several years as a parliamentary researcher. He chose to work for a firm specialising in the charity sector before moving to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, where he now concentrates on fundraising. “I'm employed here now as a fundraiser rather than as a lawyer,” he says, although his work does involve putting potential donors in touch with solicitors to arrange for legacies to be drawn up.

For Wilberforce, a legal qualification has turned out to be a means of entry into a wider role in charity work.

But others, like legal service manager at the Terrence Higgins Trust Simmy Viinikka, remain at the coal-face of legal practice in their work. Viinikka, 10-years qualified, took a £10,000-a-year pay cut to work in the charity sector, after first working for a private firm specialising in legal aid work, and then spending a year in local government.

She says the charity's client base of people with HIV and AIDS has a huge demand for legal services in a range of predictably depressing fields.

Viinikka is one of three in-house lawyers supported by 65 volunteers from the legal profession who aim to provide legal services to clients approaching the charity.

“Our volunteers come from all walks of legal life,” she says. “They help us organise wills, staff a legal helpline and help us with our out-reach work visiting hospitals.”

The charity must operate a system of Chinese walls in helping people draw up wills; on the one hand the charity offers to provide the service for terminally-ill clients, while it also solicits for its own funds through legacy donations, according to Viinikka.

Even though it has quickly grown to become one of the UK's medium-ranked charities, the Terrence Higgins Trust's in-house corporate needs do not currently justify an in-house lawyer, says Viinikka. Instead, the trust has outside lawyers dealing with its conveyancing or corporate requirements.

Solicitors attracted to her line of work should weigh up the pros and cons carefully, says Viinikka. “On the plus side, you do get holidays which are significantly better than in private practice, and you do get more time to write articles, get involved in policy work and obtain training in areas you normally wouldn't do in a normal legal career. But you have to get used to working in cramped conditions and with little administrative support.”

Pro bono work may provide an answer to the frustration felt by many volunteers that their legal careers are not spent dealing directly with clients, or that they are not fighting injustice on behalf of the disadvantaged, or at the cutting edge of policy or test case work. And it may provide many with the opportunity to test their commitment to working in the charity field when the occasional opportunity arises, although Viinikka concedes that “the jobs market isn't good, and there's not a lot of places to go”.

But for others, she says, pro bono work may be a way of tackling career frustrations for solicitors while convincing them that a full-time career in the charity sector is not for them after all.

“Battle fatigue” is another drawback to work in the area, identified by Marion Chester, solicitor with the Disability Legal Service. It is a condition she has managed to avoid since entering the legal profession as a mature student after a spell working as an electronics engineer in the telecoms sector.

She also has ended up in the charities field by design rather than chance. “And it certainly ain't for the money,” she says.

According to Chester, the salary level she would enjoy in private practice is more than double that she now earns. But she insists there remains a commercial opportunity for private practice firms to handle much of the caseload she deals with.

“If lawyers in many districts made it clear they would take on the kind of work I deal with, they would be swamped. A lot of it qualifies for legal aid.

“My problem is often putting a client in touch with a firm locally which is happy to handle the case.”

Dealing with charitable work, then, does not always mean accepting uncommercial salaries or charge-out rates. Indeed, says Wilberforce, the commercial pressure on firms offering charity law expertise to non-profit making clients may be reducing their willingness to offer legal help at reduced rates or on a pro bono basis.

But for in-house staff like Wilberforce, Viinikka and Chester, the drop in salary required to opt out of private practice work in the charity sector is well worth it.

“There is more to life than money, and job satisfaction comes higher in my order of priorities,” says Chester. “My work is certainly not routine because you never know what is going to come in each day.

“So it is not just rewarding in the sense that you know you are helping people directly – it is also fascinating.”