Providing support and services to more than 60,000 individuals and families with intellectual and developmental disabilities, NYSARC Inc. is the largest nonprofit organization of its kind in New York with 55 chapters across the state.
Since joining the legal team at NYSARC in 2012, General Counsel Kathryn Jerian has become vital to the organization’s mission, leading its state office legal team and providing support to its board of governors, as well as various committees and chapters. We asked Jerian to describe her role with the organization, the challenges it faces, and what she’s learned about herself as a legal professional in her time with NYSARC.
An edited letter from her appears below.
As general counsel for the largest nonprofit in New York state, providing supports and services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and balancing resources at NYSARC Inc. is one of the most important skills to master in the organization’s mission to provide as much sound, thoughtful and thorough legal advice as possible on a limited budget with a very small number of staff.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, NYSARC operates through a number of chapters across the state, though many chapters do not have the benefit of full-time, in-house counsel to assist them in their incredibly complicated daily operations.
Nonprofits are known for working with austere funds and NYSARC is no different, especially in a changing environment where budget cuts, unfunded mandates, and dramatic changes to our system are at play every day. The morass of federal and state statutes and regulations is staggering, and changing all the time. State regulatory oversight, nonprofit law changes, Medicaid, and other corporate compliance obligations present an awesome responsibility, though none of that work should overshadow the critical work NYSARC does in supporting some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens or its mission to both advocate for the people it supports and services.
In some ways, NYSARC operates as a trade association by offering conferences and other training opportunities to its members and by keeping abreast of changes in the legal landscape and distilling and summarizing those changes for member-chapters. Part of the department’s responsibility is also to monitor and assess the impact of legislation and to counsel when a legislative fix might be beneficial in solving a specific problem.
“My primary job is to advise, support and protect the corporation from an operational perspective by ensuring that its policies are followed and that new policies are added or amended as the law evolve.”
However, as counsel to the corporation, my primary job is to advise, support and protect the corporation from an operational perspective by ensuring that its policies are followed and that new policies are added or amended as the law evolves. Between limited staffing resources and the complexity and variety of legal issues, I have found it is critical to partner with the right outside counsel who both understands the field and understands NYSARCs corporate structure. Chapters are often facing the same issues, so when we can find efficiencies in taking corporation-wide positions, we take advantage.
Before I came to NYSARC almost five years ago, I worked in a private litigation firm. I enjoyed the comradery and support that comes with working together every day with a large team of lawyers. There was a freedom to discuss legal theories and arguments at a conceptual level and try out those arguments from time to time with the courts—it could be a satisfying and creative process.
Here and now, chapters need concrete answers to specific questions, and quickly. Often, the health and safety of people is at stake. My advice must come with constructive and definitive solutions—otherwise it is rendered essentially useless. Risk assessment in the provision of advice is paramount because action will be taken one way or the other; my job is to support the best outcome with the least possible risk. It’s a much different universe than where I came from, but the sense of satisfaction in solving a problem in an inexpensive yet efficient and thorough way is immense. Selfishly, I also love that I learn something new all the time. I remember shortly after I got here for the first time I realized what the “practice of law” really meant, and it is still true many years down the road.