Gene Takagi has long been interested in nonprofits. He has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and spent two years with the San Francisco SPCA, directing its medical and rehab divisions before going back to earn his J.D.

But as an associate in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton’s corporate department, he had a difficult time building a nonprofit practice. He didn’t have enough clout to draw large institutional clients, and many organizations couldn’t afford his big-firm rates. He did some pro bono work for the Museum of the African Diaspora, all the while keeping an eye on what he perceived as a large untapped need among the smaller nonprofits.