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Teachable Moments for the GC of Teach for America
Four years after Tracy-Elizabeth Clay landed a sought-after associate position at Hogan Lovells (then Hogan & Hartson), she was already weighing her employment options. The Harvard Law School graduate was on a partnership track and had plenty of mentors at the firm, but she didn't feel passionate about the work. Clay says she knew it was time to move on when, asked to describe her best day at the office, she drew an absolute blank. "I couldn't describe what made one day better than another," recalls Clay.
In 2002 she took a nonlegal government relations position with Teach for America. Clay became the nonprofit's first general counsel in 2006 and now leads a department of five lawyers. Partly because of the sluggish economy in recent years, program application levels are continuing to rise. TFA has an annual budget of $300 million and is able to place and train new teachers in 47 different communities nationwide.
CORPORATE COUNSEL: TFA corps members teach for two years in low-income communities. Do most of your teachers remain committed to education well beyond that?
TRACY-ELIZABETH CLAY: Our goal is to catalyze people to make the cause of educational inequality in this country their lifelong cause. Over 60 percent of our people do that through teaching and remaining in the classroom. Another significant percentage stay within the education sector in administrative positions, such as principals, charter school leaders, and, increasingly, system leaders.
CC : What are some of the legal issues involved in running a nonprofit like TFA?
TC: They're actually pretty similar for almost any organization of our size. We have 2,000 staff members, so we do a lot of labor and employment. We also do a lot of contracts work. Partnerships are at the heart of what we do. We have hundreds of schools that we partner with nationwide and dozens of universities, and those partnerships are all based on contractual relationships.
CC: What responsibility do you have in terms of managing risk?
TC: Even though we are not the direct employers of our teachers, the truth of the matter is that our teachers touch the lives of over 600,000 kids a day. If you looked just at the number of kids served, we would be the third- or fourth-largest school district in the United States. Even though it's indirect and we're supporting from a one-step-removed posture, we have more than 10,000 teachers. Things happen, and my team gets involved to support the regional folks in helping teachers and responding to whatever issues arise.
CC: TFA relies heavily on pro bono legal services. When you remove the cash component from the outside counsel relationship, how does that change its dynamics?
TC: It really depends on the firm. I've got partners where it really doesn't change anything because their commitment to pro bono work is to treat it the same as their fee-for-service work, and they live up to that. And there are some who definitely don't have that same philosophy.
CC: How can the legal department contribute to that effort?
TC : We talk all the time here about building an institution that is around for as long as the problem of educational inequity is around, but not one day longer. Striking that balance is what my team is all about, taking that long view to make sure that we are organizationally as strong as we need to be to deliver on our mission. At the same time, we don't want to become bureaucratic or institutionalized in ways that make us okay with the very problems that we're trying to solve. We really are genuinely trying to work ourselves out of a job.