This is the fourth post in a series where the attorneys of Jason Wiener | p.c. will share the path that led them to purpose driven legal practice. This is Nathan’s story.
I’ve always put very high value on the importance of community in my own life. But the moment I understood I wanted to make community support an important part of my career (and adult life) was on a trip to Findlay Market in Cincinnati, Ohio while I was in college. I was amazed at the ecosystem of farm vendors, small businesses, market infrastructure, and consumers, and how it all worked together so seamlessly to create what is the epitome of community in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over the Rhine. It served low-income communities in the downtown area by providing an affordable resource for fresh food and groceries, while also attracting people from all over the city (and outside of it). I found the market incredibly exciting and came back to it frequently after that visit. What ultimately brought me to the legal profession was the desire to be a resource to small businesses and community actors (like those I found at Findlay) so I could help them achieve their goals that served their communities. Ideally, I wanted to be able to plug into different projects and support their successes as best I could.
Typical law school classes are not geared toward teaching one how to use legal practice to support their community or to combat social inequalities. However, I chose to attend the George Washington University Law School because I was very interested in a particular legal clinic that did teach these skills through transactional legal work – the Small Business & Community Economic Development Clinic. In this clinic, I was able to provide legal support to nonprofit and social enterprise businesses that were supporting communities in need in Washington, D.C. and in the surrounding areas. It was also the first place where I learned how legal skills could be used in practice to combat social and racial inequality created by unjust societal structures. This experience helped me confirm that transactional law was the right path for me after law school and inspired me to make sure I found ways in my career to work with organizations whose missions were to support more than just a bottom line. I wanted to work with people and organizations who were concerned with supporting the wellbeing of those in their communities, but who may not otherwise be able to afford the legal services needed to do so sustainably.
Unfortunately, purpose-driven transactional legal careers are not in abundance for recent law school graduates (especially those with heavy student loans). One typically needs more experience first. So following law school, I started my career at a large regional law firm in Columbus, Ohio where I practiced mostly commercial real estate law. While this work was very interesting (and tangibly rewarding), I often felt like I was missing something in my work. I wanted to contribute to the community around me, or to those in need of legal support who could not otherwise afford it. So, I sought out pro bono opportunities with my firm whenever possible. Doing so allowed me to support various nonprofit organizations doing incredible work in the Columbus and Cincinnati communities, but these projects only came up once every few months and were not the priority of my work.
To pursue this interest further while still working as an associate at my firm, I decided to seek out more of these opportunities independently. This led me to a volunteer attorney position with the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Cincinnati. This clinic provides legal support for business and community development clients (both for-profit and non-profit) in the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio region. I served as a volunteer supervising attorney in the clinic for two school years where I oversaw the work of law students as we worked together to provide legal services to community-based clients with social missions embedded in their organizations. I found this work even more rewarding and was pleasantly reminded of everything I found so inspiring from my work as a student attorney in the Small Business and Community Economic Development Clinic at George Washington (I also found I really like teaching).
Soon enough, the pieces came into place that would allow me to make a full-time transition into purpose-driven legal practice: I became more financially stable after practicing for four years at my first law firm, I discovered that clinics in legal academia are a platform for supporting small business and community economic development clients on a pro bono basis, and I found a job posting for a Clinical Teaching Fellowship position in the Zell Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. I applied to the fellowship, and after a quick move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I began my first full-time endeavor into purpose driven legal practice.
I spent two years at the University of Michigan, where I was fortunate enough to work with many for-profit and non-profit organizations in the clinic. As a fellow, I worked alongside brilliant law students (and clinical professors) to support entrepreneurs in the University of Michigan and southeastern Michigan communities on a pro bono basis. Toward the end of my second year in the clinic, I decided to move on from Ann Arbor because while I loved the community I built there, Ann Arbor was not the best fit for me anymore. And while I truly enjoyed teaching, I missed working with clients in a more direct capacity, rather than through the slower clinical model that incorporated teaching into the process. I started exploring other options outside of academia, but I knew the opportunities for purpose driven legal work would be very slim. Fortunately, a close friend and colleague (and my former law school clinic instructor from George Washington), Parag Khandhar of Gilmore Khandhar LLC, a solidarity economies law firm, was familiar with a purpose driven law firm based in Boulder, Colorado that was looking for a new associate attorney.
After reading about the work of Jason Wiener | p.c., I knew working with this firm would offer me a particularly fitting combination of the things I was looking for but which I could not find in only a clinical teaching position – a platform to support mission-driven organizations, to work closely with other professionals in the community economic development space, and to create social impact through my daily work. I often think of Findlay Market and its beautiful ecosystem in my current work. It inspired me to pursue a career where I could contribute to making community spaces like that possible, and it led me to understand how transactional legal practice could be a tool for doing so while creating positive social change.