Melissa S. Norden on the Dog-Eat-Dog World of a Nonprofit

Melissa S. Norden on the Dog-Eat-Dog World of a Nonprofit

By Teresa Talerico

Melissa S. Norden's clients bark at her all day long. But she doesn't mind. In fact, she loves it. Norden is Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She was recently promoted to the position after four years as staff counsel.
A 1999 Brooklyn Law School graduate, Ms. Norden demonstrated her dedication to social causes by volunteer work and internships for nonprofits and charitable organizations while in college and law school. As one of 10 ASPCA in-house counsels, Ms. Norden primarily handled corporate contracts and license agreements. But, as she quickly learned, working for a nonprofit often means pinch-hitting as needed. At the ASPCA, that might include helping track down stray animals or fostering a dog in your office. Ms. Norden even adopted her cat, Birdie, from the ASPCA.

Q: What attracted you to this type of work?

A: I always wanted to work for a nonprofit, and I did a lot of charity stuff as a kid. When I graduated from law school, I said that I wanted to work in-house at a nonprofit. Everybody said there's no way you can do that until you're several years out of school. I said, "OK, we'll see."

Q: What advice do you have for students?

A: I sought out all the different areas you could work in as a lawyer. I worked in-house at HBO one summer as a contract administrator in their legal department. I interned with a judge. I did some research projects. I worked in a law firm as a paralegal. I interned at the American Red Cross. I scoped out all the environments and tried to combine my penchant for charitable work with my legal interests.

Q: What are the rewards of working for an organization that protects our nation's critters?

A: We do amazing work. We have a TV show, "Animal Precinct," that airs on Animal Planet. It's been running for four years. It really showcases the amazing work we do. If you were to trace an animal from our first interaction with it to the last, it's amazing what you find. We often seize animals from abusive situations, and they have absolutely no reason to ever trust another human being. After we bring them in, clean them up, and they get their evaluations, they still are often very fearful of people or not interacting well enough with people yet. We encourage the staff to foster animals in their offices. Every staff member from adoptions to marketing to the president can have an animal in their office. That's a great part of working here. It really sets a different tone when you walk into a meeting and there's a dog lying on the floor (vs.) walking into a sterile office environment.

Q: What are the challenges?

A: You never have enough money to do everything you'd like to do. That obviously includes salaries and programs that don't get funded. It's very frustrating from that standpoint. But to me, the pros far outweigh the cons.

Q: What does the ASPCA look for when hiring associate counsels?

A: I hired someone three weeks ago to replace me in the counsel role. She's actually someone who worked at three of the largest law firms in the world. She also had done some pro bono work for me in the past. The thing I liked about her was she had a stellar legal resume, but she also had a dog that was a rescue. She is someone who took on pro bono work in the past, not just for my organization but for other organizations. She obviously cares about animals and has a strong legal background. You don't have to have a love of animals to work here, but it really helps.

Q: What's one thing they don't teach in law school that they should?

A: Law school teaches you maybe two percent of what you need to know to practice law in the real world. My clients are everyone from the kennel worker to the ASPCA president and everybody in between. They don't teach you in law school how to deal with people who are not lawyers. Law school does not teach you how to write a contract, how to do business transactions. Probably the most important thing, no matter what kind of law you practice, is learning how to write. And as much as law school likes to think they teach you how to do that, they really don't.

Q: Any other advice?

A: If you really want to work in a nonprofit, it's best to get a wide range of experience. Because there are limited resources, you're frequently asked to do more things than a person in the same position at a corporation would do. You're called upon to do a lot more. I started out doing just license agreements, and I ended up doing contracts for every department of the organization.

We don't have a support staff. We don't have paralegals. We don't have a lot of administrative help. It's a question of resources. You also have to be willing to pitch in and help with things a lawyer might not normally be doing. We were active in rescuing animals in buildings around Ground Zero after 9-11. I pitched in, and I was on the phone and making calls to residents, asking if they were able to get their pets out of their apartments. I'm a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person...and it certainly helps around here if you like getting your hands dirty!

Q: Are you a cat or a dog person?

A: Even though I have a cat, I'm a dog person. To be honest, I never liked cats. I like my cat because he's more like a dog than a cat. If you open the front door, cats go diving under the bed and you don't see them for a day. My cat, when I open the front door at night, comes running to the door at warp speed and licks my entire face for a solid 10 minutes! He's a total companion.

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