July 10, 2013

Public Interest: Passionate Leaders, Problem Solvers Rise in Nonprofit Sector

Hannah Hayes

Judith Lichtman always knew she wanted to be an activist, but in 1962 it didn’t occur to her to enter law school. The daughter of labor union activists, Lichtman was pursuing a degree in American history and political theory when a young law professor encouraged her to enter law school.

“If she had not prodded and poked, I wouldn’t have had the guts,” recalls Lichtman, who was executive director of the National Partnership for Women & Families (formerly the Women’s Legal Defense Fund) in Washington, D.C., from 1974 to 2004. Most likely, she says, she would have followed the more traditional path of teaching.

Lichtman was one of two women in her law school class of 150 and always viewed her move as “obtaining a license for an activist—I wanted to be a civil rights practitioner.” The woman professor who encouraged her was Shirley Abrahamson, who went on to become chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Women Ahead of Men

The nonprofit sector has long been an area of law that has attracted women lawyers. Employment patterns tracked by the National Association for Law Placement, Washington, D.C., have consistently shown that more women and minorities enter the public service sector than men.

Like Lichtman, Eva Paterson campaigned for civil rights for more than three decades before founding the Equal Justice Society in Oakland, California, in 2003. Prior to that, she served as executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C.

“It was kind of controversial,” notes Paterson as she recalls her early days as an activist. Paterson says the thought of an African American woman in charge came as a surprise to many. “Even cool white men who thought that they were looking out for our interests were a bit unnerved when they found out we could watch out for ourselves,” she laughs.

Legal Training Goes a Long Way

The nonprofit sector often involves managing budgets as well as managing people. “It’s a combination of real entrepreneurship: looking out for the fiscal well-being of a business, but all the while being very clear about your vision for the mission of the organization,” says Lichtman, who continues to serve as senior advisor for the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C. “My law degree went a long way in helping me to develop those skills.”

Both Lichtman and Paterson agree that while there are challenges peculiar to the nonprofit sector, their legal training went a long way toward helping them become good advocates.

“The power to be able to say, ‘let’s try to say it this way,’ and to have the confidence that we can use the legal training and legal skills to do that is a great gift,” says Lichtman, noting that negotiating skills, mediating disputes, and bringing parties together—all skills taught in law schools—also apply to directing a nonprofit.

“I think we’re very good managers and problem solvers, and in general we’re more consensus builders,” Paterson says. “But you also get a lot of on-the-job training.” However, Paterson points out that classes and support groups for nonprofit management are more widely available today.

While the nonprofit industry may have limited job opportunities, Lichtman maintains it is a robust and healthy sector of the law. The number of fellowships and international opportunities is increasing, and most law schools have flourishing clinical programs in everything from immigration to domestic violence. “There are some fabulous avenues that did not exist before for those entering public interest law,” Paterson points out.

Tackling Implicit Bias

Nevertheless, women—and especially women of color—are still tackling problems of implicit bias when it comes to rising to leadership positions. Paterson says sexism and racism are alive and well and add pressure to situations that are already stressful. “As a woman and a black woman, you can’t mess up; all women feel this burden of responsibility to do it right,” she explains. “But for women of color, there’s a double whammy.”

Still, Paterson calls herself an optimist by nature. “Yes, there is a glass ceiling and a lot to do, but you’ve got young girls and young boys growing up seeing women being very different now. We won’t turn the clock back.”

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.