University: University of Leeds
Charities lawyers advising the not-for-profit and social enterprise sector cover a vast area of legal ground from wills and trusts to commercial and real estate law. Some lawyers specialise in litigation over disputed legacies; others focus on the creation and governance of registered charities and industrial and provident societies. Certain sectors play a significant role in the charities sector, among them housing, education and a variety of care services.
Robert Nieri was motivated by that "hackneyed" (his word) reason for studying law: "I did genuinely want to help people." He trained at Eversheds in Leeds, spent a year there post qualification, before moving on to Freeth Cartwright for two further years. Following a shift to the Government Legal Service (GLS) for a different type of lawyering, where he spent a couple of years, it was then back to Freeths to continue his career.
Now a senior associate in the commercial department, Robert's expertise lies in the charities sector. As he explains, charities are increasingly concerned with general commercial matters, such as contract and governance law. "Charities have to be very careful about how they conduct their business; the trustees must act within the objects of that charity," he explains. "Their constitutions are heavily scrutinised. Thankfully, there are not that many disputes. The larger charities have the same legal and commercial issues as any organisation - for example to do with employment or property law - with a residual element that relates to specific charities legislation." Robert focuses on the broad commercial issues, coordinating with colleagues to help clients in relation to more specific issues, such as tax or employment.
Examples of the type of work that comes across Robert's desk include helping a major environmental charity to put in place partnership agreements with commercial partners, whereby a consumer spends a certain amount in one of the shops and a designated percentage of that sale will go to the charity. He has also worked on an innovative partnership agreement between a charity and a local authority, whereby the charity provides services that the authority would otherwise have been responsible for. A significant proportion of his time is spent liaising with the Charity Commission to set up new charities or to gain approval for certain activities.
Robert describes what he has got on at the moment: "I'm working on a potential merger between two large charities, which is very interesting but also very hush-hush. I am also doing a lot of training for charity clients, including a webinar very recently - it felt quite innovative for a fusty old law firm! A lot of the smaller charities can't afford massive legal bills, so I want to maximise the value we offer to them, as we do for all our clients."
One of the downsides of the job is being stuck behind a desk and Robert tries to get out from behind it as often as possible. However, he recognises that "as a commercial lawyer, you are working on the computer or talking on the phone most of the time and that is the nature of the job - if you're keen to be at the heart of the glamorous trials you see on TV, then commercial law may not be for you!".
Change is a feature of the job, but more so as it relates to the broader legal environment than specifically to charities law. "There have been various reviews over the last few years of charity legislation, none of which has come up with any groundbreaking concrete proposals, just largely incremental proposed changes," explains Robert. "However, the Charities Act 2011 consolidated all the existing legislation; my challenge is to learn all the new section numbers! More generally though, as practitioners we are all having to work out how to deliver a cost-effective service that can't be delivered by other types of legal services provider. The profession is undergoing a huge sea change."
Robert elaborates on the skills you need to get ahead as a lawyer in the charities sector: "You have to combine an eye for detail with an eye for overall strategy and a commercial approach. You need to know when not to take something to the Nth degree. There is also a real skill - and it will be more important in the future - in offering differing levels of service, from the Rolls Royce to the Mini if you will, to different clients. All parties need to be clear on what level they're paying for at the outset."
Finally, Robert urges would-be solicitors to "get as many work placements as you can" and consider writing or contributing to a blog as "a good way to build up your knowledge and presence". He has just started a charity blog for Freeths. He concludes by reflecting on the true nature of the modern day lawyer's lot: "I wish I'd known about the amount of things you have to do before you can actually get down to doing the job. We are so heavily regulated and there are many things to deal with before you can focus on what we are trained to do. There is ever more admin, and greater reliance on technology, so there is a challenge in that."