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Joan Wise is general counsel for AARP, the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
Can you explain a bit about the founding of AARP? AARP was founded in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, a longtime educator — and the first woman high school principal in the state of California. Dr. Andrus founded a separate organization, the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA), in 1947. She realized that retired teachers were living on incredibly small pensions, often without any health insurance. After discovering that a retired teacher friend of hers was literally living in a chicken coop, she became a strong advocate on behalf of the economic security of retired teachers. She approached more than 30 companies to offer health insurance to retired teachers before she found someone willing to take a chance on NRTA members in 1956. The organization then expanded its membership to all retirees and became AARP in 1958. Today the NRTA is still a division of AARP and serves as its educator community. AARP continues to follow Dr. Andrus’ guiding principles: collective voice, collective purchasing power, and the collective ability to do good and give back through service. We continue to follow the motto she created for AARP, “To serve, not to be served.” Well, then, let’s talk about the AARP of today. Our goal is to take Dr. Andrus’ vision to the next level. She believed in providing effective advocacy on aging issues, education and information that promote dignity and purpose in one’s life, and community service programs. For example, our advocacy efforts demonstrate the power of a group voice, whether it is our work to lower the cost of prescription drugs through programs like Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit, or Social Security reform, where we were successful in educating people about the pitfalls of diverting Social Security funds to create private accounts. We are proud of the high quality and vast quantity of objective information we publish through AARP The Magazine, the largest-circulation magazine in the world; the AARP Bulletin; and our bimonthly Spanish-language magazine, Segunda Juventud. Recently, we have published detailed articles on the new Medicare prescription drug program, informing older Americans about ways to select a drug plan that works for them. Our prize-winning Web site extends this quality information through the Internet. We are a nonpartisan organization of 36 million members. For AARP, I firmly believe it’s the issues that are important, not any particular candidate or political party. We don’t endorse candidates and we don’t have a PAC, and we don’t make contributions to campaigns. We are issue-oriented. In fact, that bore out in the past few years when our work on the Medicare prescription drug plan angered the Democrats and our work to defeat the privatization of Social Security upset Republicans. The member services AARP endorses, such as health and auto insurance, which provide special features such as very limited underwriting and guaranteed renewability, continue to utilize group-buying power to influence the marketplace on behalf of our members. It isn’t just about going out and getting discounts, but also filling the unmet needs of members. Dr. Andrus believed we have a collective obligation to give back through community service programs. Our affiliated charity, the AARP Foundation, runs the largest free, volunteer-run tax-assistance program and the most successful nationally administered senior job-training program. AARP operates the nation’s first and largest driver-safety program in the nation for drivers 50 and over. Does AARP have a tax-exempt status? AARP is tax-exempt under 501(c)(4) of the tax code, but contributions from members are not tax-deductible. This status allows us to provide for the welfare of our members and for society as a whole, as well as to lobby. Our foundation is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and we have a taxable subsidiary, AARP Services Inc., which was set up about seven years ago to manage relations with third-party endorsed providers of the member services. What can you tell us about your background? I’m a true local. I grew up in D.C. and have lived in the District for the last 50 years. I went to George Washington University for undergraduate and then to Georgetown University Law Center. I began my career as a teacher, and while living in California got my master’s in remedial education. When my family moved back to D.C., the city had just laid off 700 teachers, helping me make the decision to return to school. I wanted to go further in my field and was debating between a Ph.D. or a J.D. I decided on law because I was interested in how legislation played out in the classroom. I was fascinated with how decisions that were made on Capitol Hill about federal aid ended up impacting my classroom of children with special needs. I ended up going to Georgetown and cannot say enough about how terrific they are to older women. There are a group of eight women, all who were second-career students that studied law at Georgetown together. We still get together at least four times a year. I’m going to a Seder at one of their homes this evening. We’ve all done a variety of things — from government to private practice, association work, solo practice, Justice Department — and we’re also at very different life stages. Four of our children also went to Georgetown Law School. Informally, Marilyn Tucker, the director of alumni career services, kind of adopted us. She’s the ninth member of our group. So how old were you when you went to law school? I was 40. I’m about to turn 65 this summer — and I’m not shy about that! What brought you to AARP? I always knew I didn’t want to go work for a firm. I started out in the Maryland attorney general’s office. I always liked that kind of law — how it impacts people individually and collectively. The person who later hired me at AARP said that representing a state was not unlike representing members of AARP. Dr. Andrus’ idea of group power — that’s what really attracted me. I’ve now been 19 years at AARP, seven of those as general counsel. What kinds of legal issues come up? As a tax-exempt nonprofit, we have all the compliance and regulatory issues, both at the federal and state levels, and then all of the governance issues among the various boards of directors. We also serve as the ethics and privacy office for the association, which is somewhat unusual. All of these things are related, and all of those are related to us being this kind of multifaceted nonprofit. We also are the largest nonprofit mailer, so we have a lot of postal issues. I think with all of these issues, we employ the concept of preventative law. By being in house we can get in on the ground floor of many projects. We also have a lot of similar issues for any large nonprofit organization, since we have over 2,000 employees and 53 offices in the states. We also have someone who does real estate half time, someone who does human resources full time, a few people who do full-time transactional work, and attorneys who handle intellectual property issues, such as protecting our own brand and going after companies that misuse our name. Finally, similar to other large organizations, we manage a certain amount of litigation in the human resource area and in protecting our intellectual property, particularly trademarks. What’s the size of your legal department? We have 10 lawyers and five support staffers. In addition, [in the] AARP Foundation, our 501(c)(3) charity, we have an additional cadre of 13 to 15 litigators. Because they litigate on behalf of AARP, my office needs to say yes or no about whether we are going to litigate a particular issue. What’s the chain of command? We’ve grown tremendously in the last 10 years and brought a lot of work in house. Now we have four associate general counsels who report to me, and each of them has a practice group, including transactional issues and the Internet; intellectual property and misuse; brand issues, political issues, and compliance; and human resources. Then each associate general counsel has at least one attorney reporting to him or her. What outside firms do you use? If we need litigation we use two firms, Frank Morris at Epstein Becker & Green and John Dabney at McDermott Will & Emery. Going outside for intellectual property issues, we use McDermott and Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. And for our complex tax issues we use two firms, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Foley & Lardner. What’s your average day like? Complex. Is there a typical day? Probably not. Certainly not a typical week. We constantly get novel legal issues, and I think that is one of the best things about the job. The other is working for a mission-driven organization. As in-house counsel, you do get involved in information, education, advocacy, but also in community service and member services. Our office gets involved in almost all aspects of the organization. What would you say are the challenges of the job? The challenges are balancing the legal issues and business needs in a very fast-paced place, a complex, ever-growing organization, fitting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, resulting in a good outcome for the members. What about the best things? After 19 years I’m still learning all the time. I enjoy working with both our in-house and outside counsel to get the current best thinking in multiple areas of the law and applying those learnings to the needs of the boards and the staff. Where would we find you if you’re not in the office? I like to travel. But when I’m in Washington, you’ll find me in my kitchen or garden. We’ve lived in the same old house for 40 years. Read any good books lately? I’m attracted to biographies — I like to read about people in totally unrelated fields doing things well. It’s also the kind of book I can dip into and out of. One, for example, is Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House by Franklin Toker, about the building of Fallingwater. I love anything by M.F.K. Fisher. I’m reading one now: A Life in Letters. Another is the Tom Brokaw autobiography, A Long Way from Home. One last question: How is it that AARP always knows when a person is about to turn 50? Getting that letter in the mail from AARP seems to be a rite of passage. It’s no secret. We buy lists of publicly available information. Every now and then, we get people who are under 50, but we have pretty sophisticated “merge-and-purge” mailing systems. People may see the card as a rite of passage, but our research shows that people at almost any age are looking, acting, and feeling several years younger than they actually are. So someone who is turning 50 may be feeling younger. And baby boomers seem to want to manage their aging in new ways. To the extent that AARP can help them individually or collectively in the process, we can say: “Here are the resources. Whether it’s an opportunity to volunteer, a program, a publication, or an endorsed product, you can do it alone or we can do it together.”

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