Emily Robertson isn’t your stereotypical lawyer. She wears scuffed up Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. She’s active with the Minnesota Fringe Festival and she practices in an area that probably won’t ever be the subject of a John Grisham novel: nonprofit law.
Robertson’s practice focuses on helping nonprofit organizations navigate the bureaucracy of 501(c)(3) designations. Unlike most lawyers who work with nonprofits, Robertson is a solo practitioner.
“There’s not a ton of us. Most of the people who do it, do it in big firms because it’s a unique enough practice area that it’s easier to do when you have other folks around that kind of hit on all of those other areas that you don’t,” she said.
She first became interested in nonprofit work after she worked as a phone canvasser in college. She enjoyed her work, but knew she eventually needed to make a change.
“I’m somebody that needs my world to be constantly changing and kind of constantly need new and interesting things,” she said. She started working at a boutique law firm that specialized in areas unique to nonprofit corporations. This is where she realized she could combine her passion for nonprofit work and her law experience
“I saw that I could continue to work in the nonprofit sector, but in a way that allowed me to have a lot more variety in what I do. I don’t have to pick an issue that I care about,” Robertson said.
She loves the different types of organizations she works with: no-kill cat shelters, youth sports leagues, youth empowerment organizations, among many others.
“My clients do all sorts of awesome things,” she said.
Working with nonprofits as a solo attorney fits her personal style as well. “I try not to be a boring attorney. The practice of law is far too boring to begin with. Practicing in a way that is a little more interesting is definitely my thing,” she said.
That means wearing jeans, tweeting about her love of Christmas, and sharing the human side of being a lawyer.
In her show for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, “Kill All the Lawyers”, she and a former lawyer presented numerous stories of lawyers behaving badly. She even took the show on the road and performed at the Charm City Fringe Festival in Baltimore. While the show contained gasp-worthy tales of lawyer’s misdeeds, she wanted to get the message across that lawyers screw up just like everyone else.
“We go to law school and in law school you learn to put up this front. You do everything right and you always know what the solution is, which means not showing that you have flaws or that you may not know the answer to something or that you have weaknesses. Part of what it’s always meant to be a good lawyer is that you don’t have weaknesses and that you’re very confident. That means that people don’t ask for help,” she said.
Even though she isn’t afraid to be critical of her profession, Robertson still finds delight in her work, “Had I not been able to make starting my own practice work, I’m not sure I could have done another kind of legal work. My clients do really inspire me and I love working with that community.”