Kent Alexander describes his job as general counsel of CARE as “legal pinball. Every day, every minute is different. Different issues, different countries, different red tape. It’s a constant learning opportunity. There’s lots of adventure, and everything we do is aimed at helping people.”
Scott Lenhart, an attorney who works with Alexander, says, “Given what CARE does, the legal issues are broad, complex and frightening. We’re constantly having to familiarize ourselves with social, economic and political issues in areas where there may not be any electricity, much less any rules.”
The challenges have not eased for CARE Inc., founded in 1945 to aid the survivors of World War II. Today, the organization is still aiding the victims of war and natural disasters. It also fights poverty by working to prevent the spread of disease, increasing access to clean water and sanitation, and expanding economic opportunity.
Adding to Alexander’s legal-pinball issues is that oftentimes CARE deals with groups or governments that have been linked to terrorists. “Attorneys try to do their best for their clients under the letter of the law. With many of our situations, there aren’t really any recognized or effective governments and very little law,” he says. “As an NGO [nongovernmental organization] we have to find ways to do our work. It’s challenging but extremely exciting.”
At any given time the four-attorney department of the international relief organization may deal with licensing issues, anti-terrorism acts, regulatory compliance issues, international law, nonprofit legal battles, real estate, human resources and tax problems. Or a CARE lawyer may be talking on the phone to an employee who is on the roof of a building in his war-torn country trying to get Internet access while bombs explode in the background.
“I can certainly shower them with praise,” says William M. McGlone, a partner with Latham & Watkins in Washington who works with CARE on regulatory issues. “They are doing intensive legal and compliance work and are very dedicated.”
Benjamin T. White, a partner with Alston & Bird, says he is glad to pitch in and help with tax issues. “I hear from Kent from time to time, and he’s terrific. He’s efficient and effective. His department does amazing legal work without cutting corners. He knows what to ask [for in pro bono help] and what not to ask. Plus, he’s a legendary figure. It’s hard to match his bio.”
Alexander joined CARE in April 2011 after serving as the general counsel of Emory University. His résumé also includes stints as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and as a partner at King & Spalding. He cut his civic teeth by co-founding Hands On Atlanta, which coordinates the community work of more than 50,000 volunteers.
At CARE, Alexander says the organization’s corporate culture is central to its success. “The camaraderie and teamwork of the staff is extraordinary. There are no egos. If something needs to be done, anyone is willing to do it, day or night, regardless of whose responsibility the job falls under.”
Alexander also points out that CARE is fortunate to have top-notch legal help either on a pro bono or reduced-fee basis. Among these firms are Alston & Bird, Hogan Lovells, King & Spalding, Holland & Knight, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Latham & Watkins and Seyfarth Shaw.
Alexander’s staff attorneys—Jane Cronin, Eric Johnson and Lenhart—each have legal specialties as well as geographic responsibility. Lenhart handles Asia and the Middle East; Johnson, Africa; and Cronin, South America and parts of Africa.
“We’re dealing with countries that I’ve never heard of,” says Alexander. “I’m constantly checking a map.”
While every year at CARE is packed with challenges, 2011 brought about some particularly difficult legal issues. CARE underwent a major reorganization that resulted in letting go of 100 of its 400 U.S. employees. Lenhart oversaw the legal groundwork for the layoffs.
The large layoff did not prompt any lawsuits, which Alexander attributes to CARE’s culture. “We were very transparent from the very beginning. It was heart-wrenching, but we’ve had no litigation as a result of how we handled it.”
In addition, last year CARE formed a new wholly owned subsidiary, CARE Enterprises Inc., which centralized the organization’s global social enterprise initiatives. CARE then drafted and negotiated a joint-venture agreement with the French organization Danone Communities to form a for-profit social enterprise in Bangladesh, which also was launched last year.
CARE also spun off India operations and has completed negotiations with CARE Peru to do the same. “These are complex agreements involving a wide range of matters including real estate, grant and employee transfers, board formations, country registration filings and other country-specific requirements,” Alexander says.
The legal department was also involved in the dissolution or sale of microfinance institutions in several challenging environments across the globe, such as in Afghanistan where “it wasn’t working. But we learned and met the challenging and, at times, changing regulatory requirements for the transfer of assets and eventual dissolution of such an entity. We were also particularly active in this realm in Latin America,” Alexander says.
Since much of CARE’s work is in areas such as Somalia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sudan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan, the legal department oversees CARE’s anti-terrorism compliance program that is designed to ensure the nonprofit’s compliance with U.S. and other laws.
“It’s very problematic in countries like Somalia, and it’s high-risk to function like we do in those countries,” says Johnson. “We have to secure legal protection relating to the work and facilitate processes so that we can partner with organizations that may be already there, for instance. Again, it is very challenging to be trying to give legal advice where the legal system isn’t as settled as ours and there are no rules or systems to abide by. It’s hard.”
McGlone says that what CARE’s legal team does is “very complicated and complex and difficult to decipher. The legal enterprises they deal with must be integrated, and the approval process is very time-consuming and cumbersome; it’s a legally intensive process dealing with the different regulatory and compliance issues. They legally have to come up with ways to interact with certain groups in territories that are on the U.S. sanction list as terrorists.”
Despite the dangers and challenges of dealing with Third World and developing countries, Alexander’s team is committed both to the law and CARE’s cause.
“The intellectual challenge of the work here is incredibly varied and interesting,” says Cronin. “Every day something comes across my desk that helps make the world a little better and smaller.”
Alexander says the legal staff routinely travels to areas with abject poverty that lack electricity, food, running water and health care.
Although the lawyers say they never felt physically threatened, they all know that danger lurks around them as they do their work in the field trying to improve the world.
“Every day when I empty out my two dogs’ water dishes, I know that there are people who would gladly take that water and put it in a glass and drink it—if they had a glass,” says Alexander. “We deal with people who are literally on the edge of survival.”
Adding with a laugh, he says, “Of course, I’d tell you that my biggest problem is not having an administrative assistant.”