Charity and Social Enterprise Law –An Interview with a Bates Wells Lawyer

By Lucy Morris


The third sector is challenging, compassionate and innovative, and here’s why you should consider a career in charity law.


As aspiring lawyers, one of our core attributes is to do the right thing and champion the fight for social justice. We join firms that have an impact on social responsibility through pro-bono functions, environmental sustainability and diversity & inclusion – especially as businesses are increasingly aligning themselves with other philanthropic brands. Impactful initiatives are led by top lawyers with an interest in using innovation, legal tech and accessible legal services, to further social causes across all sectors.


Future lawyers must have social impact on their radar like never before due to its increasing importance in applications and advising businesses. Volunteer roles require many skills relevant to the work of a lawyer and are key to any application, despite the charity law pathway often being left out of these conversations. Working in the charity and social enterprise sector is an ideal way to combine a passion for social justice with the intellectual stimulation and innovation that lawyers crave – so let’s have a chat about this.



WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE CHARITY SECTOR?


The sector has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Service delivery for charities has been turned upside down as they have shifted to online donations, digitised donor engagement and virtual events. Streamlining processes to optimize cost efficiency is likely to revolutionise service delivery and effectiveness of many non-profit organisations, despite its daunting and slow processes. Elements of grassroots fundraising and services will return as restrictions ease, but there is no doubt that the use of new tech will have the power to fuel the development of the industry.


Tech for good is new and exciting. The world’s entrepreneurs are constantly finding ways to fight some of the toughest social problems in developing tech. There is consistent use of social media for user-generated content, crowdfunding websites, cashless payments, the introduction of blockchain for transparency in spending and even automation and AI. These developments can require a lot of time, energy and money. However, charities like Beam, MeeTwo,Tech 4 Alland Jangala are all key to leading by example. This will be crucial to the pace at which the industry bounces back after COVID-19, despite pre-2020 charities already being regarded as huge investment opportunities. The sector has an annual income of over £75 billion a year, making it larger than the British automotive industry, even with its slow adoption of tech, which is due a post-pandemic boom.



WHY DON’T WE HEAR ABOUT CHARITY AND SOCIAL ENTERPRISE LAW?


When I was at law school, the key focus was on M&A, commercial, finance or employment, as students aimed for corporate city firms. I knew nothing about charity laws or about working in the sector, let alone ways of getting involved. In an effort to change this, I spoke to Rachael Southern, an associate at a Tier 1 ranked firm and B-Corp, Bates Wells. This helped me find out more about what working at a law firm that “wears the desire to have a positive impact on its sleeve” was like. Rachael's pathway into law was not linear, as she worked with Tech First for two years after university, before returning to an interest in law. After her training contract at BCLP, Rachel discovered Bates Wells and completely fell for the firm and the opportunity to combine law, with her passion for the charity sector.


Rachael describes Bates Wells as a ‘thriving community’ with multiple teams impacting a vast number of social issues. The ‘values’ orientated firm reflects this at all levels, with many partners and employees being charity trustees or school governors that view voluntary positions as an asset to their services. Environmental impact is so embedded within the firm that attending climate emergency demonstrations as a workplace, vegetarian default options and annual leave offers to those who take trains instead of flights, are all integral to the firm’s customs. Some of their notable achievements include their pro-bono work, including the work on the Uber case and property work for a community project relating to the Grenfell Tower fire, with the relocation of the Dale Youth Boxing Club. Further, their collaboration with the Law Society to produce a practical tool kit for women in law, aimed internationally to further the progress of equality in the legal profession (which is by no means an exhaustive list, rather two of my favourites). Regardless of their clientele, the firm is committed to having an all-around positive impact, alongside a great team of lawyers dedicated to the industry that work on the legal issues surrounding the third sector.



HOW CAN THE WORK DONE BY THE SECTOR BE DEFINED?


Rachael described the work undertaken by the Charity and Social Enterprise team in two parts. Firstly, there is charity law in its purest form; the law that governs the operation of a charity, some of which is found in the Charities Act 2011. This includes advising on whether an organisation can be classed as charitable under a list of charitable purposes, which is notwithstanding its complexities in requiring correspondence with the Charity Commission or a Tribunal. Rachael explained that there is an abundance of guidance on how organisations should behave and the rules they must comply with. For example, a charity cannot be set up simply to have an allegiance to a political party or to just change a law. It would be required that a charity may want to change the law to further its charitable purpose. Rachael added that it would suit those who are academically driven by law to focus on this specifically, as many areas are very technical and require a lot of research.


Secondly, there are all of the areas of legal advice which also require work within charities, including equity and trusts, data protection, intellectual property and contracts – making it a great area of law for people who want greater breadth to their practice. Mergers and collaborations in the industry can be particularly intricate due to the charitable focus in considerations, such as: Is it allowed in charity law? And Do their purposes align?


This is an area Rachael highlighted as one of her favourites, as there is a sense of drive towards the singular goal of allowing these organisations to improve efficiency and impact when combining charity considerations with the law.



KEY TAKEAWAYS


Towards the end of our conversation, Rachael advised law students to take the time to work out what it is they want from a legal career and to explore their options. Be curious, innovative and seek out opportunities that interest you - experience does not have to come from a law firm to make you a great lawyer.


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