Work + Growth

Working with Nonprofits

  • Working with nonprofits is a great way to put your law degree toward something meaningful and rewarding
  • Salaries for lawyers working in the nonprofit sector are, on average, significantly less than BigLaw or corporate salaries
  • There’s no one way to prepare for a nonprofit career, but it’s recommended to have experience in public service or the specific area in which the organization operates

There are plenty of reasons to pursue a career in law, as you’ve likely figured out by now.

The field is intellectually challenging, widely respected, and often financially rewarding. But what if you’re searching for a more meaningful law career that allows you to feel personally fulfilled?

Working with a nonprofit organization could be the answer.

Of course, working with nonprofits can be a lot different from the corporate world, especially for lawyers. There are pros and cons to a career in the nonprofit sector, but lawyers need to be prepared for an experience unlike that of their colleagues at more traditional firms.

It Can Be More Meaningful

If you’re seeking a way to put your law degree toward something more meaningful and rewarding, working in the nonprofit sector is definitely a way to do just that. Working with a nonprofit, a lawyer can effect change, devote time toward a social good, and make a direct impact with his or her work—and do so in an area or areas that are particularly meaningful to them. Whereas a BigLaw associate might have little control at first over the cases they work on, a nonprofit attorney working for an environmental foundation knows she’ll spend her time only on tasks related to the foundation’s mission.

Your Salary May Take a Hit

Especially when compared to BigLaw or the salaries offered by corporate firms in general, nonprofit lawyers tend to make significantly less. The National Association for Law Placement reported the median first-year salary for law firm associates in 2018 as $155,000. Meanwhile, the median entry-level salary for those in public service and nonprofits in 2017 was $48,000. The NALP also found that those working in public interest and nonprofits had the smallest increases in salary based on experience and have seen the slowest growth in salary levels since its survey was first conducted in 2004. This isn’t to say that lawyers working in nonprofits can’t make a decent living; it’s just a reality to consider, especially if you have student loan debt to manage.

How much of a financial hit would you be willing to take to work in the nonprofit world? What areas interest you?

There are Myriad Roles for Lawyers

From litigating to counseling executives to drafting contracts, there are practically limitless opportunities for lawyers in the nonprofit world. If you enjoy multiple areas of law, working in-house at a nonprofit can give you the opportunity to have your hands in many areas, especially if it’s a small organization or a small firm that focuses solely on nonprofits. In addition, you don’t even have to be a practicing lawyer to put your J.D. to use at a nonprofit. Many lean heavily on lobbyists, for instance, while others simply look at a law degree as an asset, evidence of a prospective employee’s strength in analysis when seeking to fill leadership roles.

Preparation Should Be Different

There’s no one right way to prepare for a law career working with nonprofits. After all, organizations with different focuses will need different things from the lawyers they employ. But there is one piece of advice that reigns overall: Try to avoid student loan debt. As mentioned above, nonprofit salaries are considerably lower than their for-profit counterparts. You don’t want to be shouldering $100,000 in debt and taking home $45,000 a year while living in a major metropolitan area. If you’re able to complete your degree with little to no debt, it’s also recommended to get some experience in public interest, especially the area in which you wish you work.


What's Next

If the idea of working with nonprofits appeals to you, head straight to your network. Who do you know who works with nonprofits? What nonprofits are interesting to you? Reach out to lawyers who are currently working in the area and who can give you a more authentic sense of what to expect and what you need to do to prepare.