Glimpse Into the Work of a Non-Profit Paralegal

Woman working at non-profit office.
••• Getty Images/Sean Justice

While most paralegals work in law firms and for-profit corporations, a growing number of paralegals are finding a niche in non-profit work. Elona M. Jouben, MPS, an experienced paralegal and program assistant for the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C., shares her paralegal background and her role in helping to shape law and policy affecting higher-education faculty.

How long have you worked as a paralegal? What is your educational background?

I have two undergraduate degrees from the University of West Florida: a Bachelor of Arts in political science (2000) and a Bachelor of Arts in legal studies/pre-law (2006). I earned my graduate degree, a Masters in Paralegal Studies (MPS), from The George Washington University in 2010. I recently celebrated my 10-year anniversary in the legal profession, 9 years of which I worked for a solo attorney and then several litigation firms in Pensacola, Florida. I accepted my current position a year ago and relocated to Washington, D.C.

to work for the in-house legal department of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), where I support our two staff attorneys and AAUP's General Counsel.

What are your daily responsibilities as a non-profit paralegal with the American Association of University Professors?

Our department supports AAUP's activities in a number of ways: responding to inquiries on higher education law from professors, academic administrators, attorneys, and others; monitoring legal developments in higher education around the country; leading workshops and presentations on higher education law; working with experts from around the country in submitting amicus curiae briefs in key appellate cases before the United States Supreme Court and state and federal appellate courts in order to safeguard sound academic practices and due process; and tracking the legal implications of legislation and its implementation in executive branch agencies.

Additionally, we also perform in-house legal work relevant to: non-profit association management and governance, including taxation, lobbying and charitable solicitation matters; employer-related employment issues; and union/labor law issues relevant to our relationships with affiliated collective bargaining chapters.

Overall, my responsibilities include performing substantive legal research on a variety of legal issues; drafting memoranda for circulation to executive governing board and affiliated entities, legal outlines for public circulation, and attorneys' presentation materials for faculty conferences and workshops; coordinating the compilation of data from various departments and our governing board in order to prepare annual audits and regulatory compliance reports; managing the AAUP Attorney Referral Service; triaging and responding to faculty inquiries regarding general legal issues, requests for amicus curiae assistance and financial support from the AAUP Legal Defense Fund; organizing our department's internal record keeping processes; coordinating annual legal intern/extern searches and interviews and assisting with their orientation; and periodically reviewing and updating departmental internal forms and standard operating procedures.

My daily duties vary widely, although the most consistently recurring duty is responding to faculty inquiries, ranging from AAUP policy on a number of issues impacting higher-education and general information on legal issues, to requests for referrals to attorneys who can give them specific legal advice. Faculty--our members--are the heart of our organization, and it's important to respond to them as timely as possible.

What skills are necessary to succeed in your current role as non-profit paralegal/program assistant?

My role requires the ability to perform substantive legal research and then to write materials relaying legal information in non-legal/technical language or in layman's terms. While our audience is generally the learned faculty of academia, we still need to be able to convey legal information in clear, concise, relatable language.

My role also requires excellent interpersonal communication skills in dealing with the various personalities of our governing board, staff colleagues, faculty at large and other attorneys and consultants with whom we collaborate on various projects.

Other important skills are the ability to prioritize, multi-task and discern when a question requires a response from a legal, policy or procedural perspective. Our office requires proficient knowledge of Word, Excel, Power Point, Outlook, and Adobe. We must also know how to navigate Lexis, PACER and other administrative agency websites and databases.

What do you enjoy most about your non-profit position?

Personally, I think I have the best paralegal job in the country! I work for an organization that combines my passion for First Amendment law issues with my legal skills. I get satisfaction from being able to help people. Whether it's as simple as providing faculty with attorney referrals, or a little more involved in performing legal research to respond to a substantive request for legal information, or assisting with the editing of an amicus curiae brief in a case implicating principles of academic freedom, including free speech and tenure, every day I get to contribute to the work of our organization which continues to play a role in shaping law and policy affecting higher-education faculty and American society at large.

What challenges are unique to your position?

I've only been in my position for a year, so I'm still learning a lot about the unique structure of our organization, the varying roles of our staff and governing board and how our legal department interrelates with them all. Learning to write for a non-legal audience has been challenging; it's every different from drafting legal documents that will be filed with the court. Filing organization has also been a little challenging, as we are not a law firm handling litigation files. I've had to creatively think outside the box to develop a comprehensible filing system for our numerous, disparate files.

Are employment opportunities in this area growing?

I don't have any statistical data regarding the growth of paralegal opportunities in non-profit organizations. Anecdotally, I would say that this is a niche area with room for growth as non-profits continue to proliferate, grow and expand their in-house legal departments. Realistically, these opportunities are most concentrated in major population centers, such as D.C. or New York City, where many national non-profits are headquartered.

How can other paralegals who wish to work in the non-profit arena break into this area? Is there any particular training, work experience or certification that would give job-seekers an edge?

Anyone considering a non-profit paralegal career and wanting to pursue a less-traditional career path from working in a law firm, should evaluate what political, economic or social issues they are passionate about and research organizations which focus on that interest. is a great website where non-profit organizations and individuals can connect and pursue mutual opportunities.

As for specific legal training, I encourage paralegals interested in this career path to take courses in legal research, writing, taxation, business law, labor/employment law, contracts and any substantive law courses related to their passion, such as environmental law, First Amendment law, civil rights law, etc.

What are your favorite paralegal resources?

What is your career highlight?

My career highlight to date is two-fold:

  1. Being offered my current position and relocating from Florida to D.C. for it, and;
  2. Having my graduate thesis published.

Do you have any favorite practice tips you can share?

I have an extensive list of internet bookmarks, organized by topics in subfolders that I've been compiling for 10 years now. I periodically update the html file and back it up on a flash drive. I also maintain my own electronic forms directory, organized by topics in subfolders, and periodically back it up on a flash drive as well. I've carried these resources with me through every job transition so that I'll always have my essential resources with me. You never know when a specialized form you created for a case three years ago will suddenly be relevant again.

Do you belong to any local or national paralegal organizations?

I am a member of the Northwest Florida Paralegal Association (NWFPA) and now participate in their monthly CLE seminars via remote webcast on the internet. When I lived in Florida, I served on the NWFPA's Board of Directors - one year as secretary and one year as parliamentarian - and chaired what was then the Membership/Student Liaison Committee. I currently serve on numerous NWFPA committees, providing support to those committees' efforts in writing articles, co-editing our newsletter, developing a student mentoring program, monitoring and reporting on paralegal regulation efforts and activity across the nation, and planning a PR/marketing campaign to extend our reach to other paralegals in the Northwest Florida area.

What other paralegal-related accomplishments have you achieved?

In Florida, I held the Florida Registered Paralegal (FRP) designation, was appointed to serve on the Florida Bar's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee for the First Judicial Circuit - Committee A, served on the Escambia County Career Academy Law Advisory Council, volunteered at various legal aid clinics and gave presentations on the paralegal profession to students at Pensacola State College, The University of West Florida and Virginia College.

My current publications include:

  • My graduate thesis: "Compulsory Regulation of Florida Paralegals is Unnecessary," in The Empowered Paralegal Professionalism Anthology, compiled and edited by Robert E. Mongue and published by Carolina Academic Press (August, 2011).
  • "State of the Paralegal Profession: All Eyes on Florida," in The Summation by the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association (April, 2011).
  • "What Paralegals Wish Their Attorneys Knew: Help Us, Help You," in The Summation by the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association (August, 2011).
  • "Deciphering Paralegal Nomenclature: Credentials and Programs Explained," in Facts & Findings by the National Association of Legal Assistants/Paralegals (Sept./Oct. 2011).
  • "Deciphering Paralegal Nomenclature: Credentials and Programs Explained," in The Summation by the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association (October 2011). (This is a derivative of my NALA article, specifically addressed to attorneys and law firm hiring managers).

I have been quoted on Robert E. Mongue's blog, The Empowered Paralegal, and I have also been profiled on the websites of my alma maters: The University of West Florida and The George Washington University.

Can you share a fun fact about yourself?

I'm the oldest of 12 children and the doting aunt of 10 nieces and nephews. Being part of such a large family has taught me a lot about personal relationships and communication skills. My siblings are my best friends.