When Cynthia Lewin left her post as general counsel of National Wildlife Federation to run the legal department at AARP in 2010, the first thing she did was look for places to trim legal expenses at the 37-million member organization. The AARP’s lawyers, she found, were spending a lot of time relaying information from inside the organization to outside law firms.

"They were interpreting the question to outside counsel and then interpreting the response," she said. "These were people that had been there a long time. I said, ‘I can see from the way you’re framing the question, you know the answer. So let’s stop sending it to outside counsel. If you need a second opinion on something I can give it to you.’ "

That’s one of the ways Lewin was able to cut millions in expenses for the advocacy group for older Americans — formerly the American Association of Retired Persons — without having to bring in new staff. Expenditures last year were more than 50 percent lower than the average annual legal bills between 2005 and 2009, she said.

Lewin’s group handles a range of matters — employment, intellectual property related to the organization’s magazine and tax matters like heading off threats to its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization. She and her team also review briefs written by AARP Foundation Litigation, a separate office that files lawsuits aimed at protecting seniors’ interests on issues including retirement, health care and nursing home coverage.

Lewin has worked to trim the demand for legal advice at the 2,000-employee organization by ramping up education for the nonlegal staff to head off problems. "We really invested in education and seminars and putting out written guidance," she said. "We’ve reduced the amount of legal work needed."

Lewin’s approach to hiring outside counsel has changed with time. At first, she tried using a single corporate firm for a range of matters, thinking that would simplify the hiring process. "I tried having a big firm, and would call them up and say, ‘Send me your federal grants person or your contracts person,’ " she said. An episode with a big-firm lawyer who lacked the specialized knowledge she needed changed her mind. Lewin went smaller — even turning to Google to help her find a specialist in an obscure area of federal grants law who wowed her with the ability recite parts of the Federal Register verbatim.

"I look for boutique firms now," Lewin said. "You tend to get time from the experts themselves rather than getting leveraged with a lot of associates."

Three of her favorites are New York’s Perlman & Perlman, an eight-lawyer firm that specializes in nonprofit law; Washington’s Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, another eight-lawyer firm that does work for political and advocacy groups; and Mosaic Legal Group, a three-lawyer Washington-based intellectual property boutique.

Lewin takes a tough line when negotiating fees. "We ask everyone for discounts: for volume discounts, for nonprofit discounts, for fee caps," she said. In November, when many firms were considering raising fees for the new year, she took to the phones to request that some of her outside firms maintain their 2013 rates at 2012 levels. Agreements with law firms include a 12-page addendum that limits the number of associates participating in depositions or on phone calls, and specifies that a single person at the firm will be a contact with a single person at AARP.

Lewin’s 12-lawyer group also juggles pro bono cases for poor seniors — including a recent matter in which her team helped recover money for about 100 people who had been harassed by an overly aggressive debt collection agency. "At nonprofits, you have to have a passion for the mission and throw yourself into it and be part of the team," she said. — Jason McLure

AARP, a 37-million member-advocacy organization for those 50 and older.
Headquarters: Washington
Industry: Membership-based advocacy group
Number of lawyers in the Washington area: 12
Number of lawyers in the U.S.: 12
Number of lawyers worldwide: 12
General counsel: Cynthia Lewin
KEYS TO SUCCESS

"What’s great about being in-house is being part of a multidisciplinary team and working with people from different backgrounds."

"At nonprofits, you have to have a passion for the mission and throw yourself into it and be part of the team."

"I look for boutique firms now. You tend to get time from the experts themselves rather than getting leveraged with a lot of associates."

"We ask everyone for discounts: for volume discounts, for nonprofit ­discounts, for fee caps."

"We really invested in education and seminars and putting out written guidance [for nonattorney staff]. We’ve reduced the amount of legal work needed."

— Cynthia Lewin