How to find a non-profit account and lawyer for cheap/free help?
August 25, 2017 4:22 PM   Subscribe

I am part of a NYC resistance group that formed after the election, and we are looking for a free/very cheap non-profit accountant and lawyer for advice. What is the best way to find some specialized assistance?

We are in the process of filing paperwork to become a 501c4, and we currently have a bank account balance of around $7,000. We have a list of questions around record keeping, taxes, compliance, non-profit status, etc. Do accountants and tax professionals have some kind of professional practice of providing pro bono assistance for worthy causes? Or would it be possible for us to find someone who works on a sliding scale? I'm not sure where to look, other than cold calling places.

Also, we don't have a problem finding lawyers to help with pro bono assistance when we do civil disobedience, but we need to find a lawyer who specialized in non-profits. What would be the best way to do this?

We are purely volunteers, and filling as a 501c4 is a big step for us, so we’re hoping we can find some cheap or free assistance from an accountant and lawyer to make sure we handle this correctly.
posted by crocodiletsunami to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ask for referrals from the lawyers who step up to help when you do civil disobedience.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:32 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think cold calling wil have some decent success. Most accounting and legal professional bodies require their members to meet continuous learning objectives and volunteer work often counts towards that.

Just be upfront about the fact that you're looking for volunteer support and the time commitment you would like.
posted by bkpiano at 6:07 PM on August 25, 2017

Best answer: Start here.
posted by praemunire at 6:43 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: we don't have a problem finding lawyers to help with pro bono assistance when we do civil disobedience, but we need to find a lawyer who specialized in non-profits.

There are a few reasons for this, and understanding them might help you to better formulate a strategy for getting the help you need. For reference, I'm a lawyer who does a lot of volunteer work.

First, there isn't a common overlap between the two practice areas (criminal defense, and nonprofits). The criminal-defense skills required to defend nonviolent protestors aren't exactly rocket science, and the work can certainly be done by corporate and nonprofit attorneys...but it tends to be done by lawyers who work in courtrooms. To some degree, this fact is attributable to basic human anxiety and aversion to taking on new responsibilities, especially knowing that you won't be trained and could get into trouble if you screw up. Some of it, honestly, is just logistics: why should John drive all the way into the city, pay $30 for parking, and lose four billable hours, when Betsy is going to be at the courthouse anyway and can do the job quicker and better?

Second, legal services are incredibly under-resourced. Criminal defendants are being processed without representation, to say nothing of indigent defendants in housing court (evictions), family court (child support), and small claims (debt collection). You asked whether professionals look for "worthy" causes. Speaking as someone who has donated a lot of his time—like, a lot—I've turned away nonprofit inquiries simply because I don't think it makes economic sense. I have to pay my bills the same as you, so I can only donate so much of my time, and I'm surrounded by folks with immediate, desperate needs who couldn't imagine scraping together $7,000 for bail much less to fund their political nonprofit group. If a nonprofit wants my help, they can pay my fees and feel secure in the knowledge they're hiring someone who does his share to help their same community.

Third, lawyers who have developed skills in the area you're talking about tend to work for law firms that (1) tightly control employees' billable hours, and (2) may also control pro bono work—by assigning it from a central intake, rather than letting lawyers find their own projects. In other words, the lawyers best positioned to help you may not be free to do the work, even if they'd like to. One of the nonprofits I mentioned above has been looking for legal help for almost a year now, and they're still posting queries. They've been trying harder than most, with no success yet.

If you put those elements together, it might give you some picture of why it's difficult to find someone to work pro bono. You asked the best way to proceed, and my advice is: instead of presenting the argument as, "We are purely volunteers, and that's why we're hoping you'll work for free," focus on expanding your group's membership. Look for people who want to volunteer in the first place based on your cause, not based on whether you're taking a salary. As you expand with members who contribute according to their ability, these problems (lawyers, accountants, etc) should take care of themselves.
posted by cribcage at 12:35 PM on August 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I reached out to one of the big billion dollar tax/accounting/compliance firms in NYC, and got a call back from one of their staff members who said he could meet with us to answer our questions, at either reduced or no cost. I'm going to get back to him this week, but it looks like cold calling actually worked.
posted by crocodiletsunami at 7:56 PM on August 28, 2017

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