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Melissa S. Norden on the Dog-Eat-Dog World of a Nonprofit [by Teresa Talerico] Melissa S. Norden’s clients bark at her all day long. But she doesn’t mind. In fact, she loves it. Norden is Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff at the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She was recently promoted to the position after four years as staff counsel.
A 1999 Brooklyn Law School graduate, Ms.
organization that protects our nation’s crit-
law firms in the world. She also had done
Norden demonstrated her dedication to
some pro bono work for me in the past. The thing I liked about her was she had a stellar
social causes by volunteer work and internships for nonprofits and charitable organiza-
A: We do amazing work. We have a TV show,
legal resume, but she also had a dog that
tions while in college and law school. As one
“Animal Precinct,” that airs on Animal
was a rescue. She is someone who took on
of 10 ASPCA in-house counsels, Ms. Norden
Planet. It’s been running for four years. It
pro bono work in the past, not just for my
primarily handled corporate contracts and
really showcases the amazing work we do.
organization but for other organizations.
license agreements. But, as she quickly
If you were to trace an animal from our first
She obviously cares about animals and has
learned, working for a nonprofit often means
interaction with it to the last, it’s amazing
a strong legal background. You don’t have to
pinch-hitting as needed. At the ASPCA, that
what you find. We often seize animals from
have a love of animals to work here, but it
might include helping track down stray
abusive situations, and they have absolutely
animals or fostering a dog in your office. Ms.
no reason to ever trust another human being.
Norden even adopted her cat, Birdie, from
After we bring them in, clean them up, and
Q: What’s one thing they don’t teach in law
they get their evaluations, they still are often
school that they should?
very fearful of people or not interacting well Q: What attracted you to this type of work?
enough with people yet. We encourage the
A: Law school teaches you maybe two per-
staff to foster animals in their offices. Every
cent of what you need to know to practice
A: I always wanted to work for a nonprofit,
staff member from adoptions to marketing
law in the real world. My clients are everyone
and I did a lot of charity stuff as a kid. When
to the president can have an animal in their
from the kennel worker to the ASPCA presi-
I graduated from law school, I said that I
office. That’s a great part of working here.
dent and everybody in between. They don’t
wanted to work in-house at a nonprofit.
It really sets a different tone when you walk
teach you in law school how to deal with
Everybody said there’s no way you can do
into a meeting and there’s a dog lying on
people who are not lawyers. Law school does
that until you’re several years out of school. I
the floor (vs.) walking into a sterile office
not teach you how to write a contract, how to
said, “OK, we’ll see.”
do business transactions. Probably the most
Q: What advice do you have for students?
Q: What are the challenges?
A: I sought out all the different areas you
A: You never have enough money to do every-
could work in as a lawyer. I worked in-house
thing you’d like to do. That obviously includes
at HBO one summer as a contract adminis-
salaries and programs that don’t get funded.
trator in their legal department. I interned
It’s very frustrating from that standpoint. But
with a judge. I did some research projects.
to me, the pros far outweigh the cons.
important thing, no matter what kind of law you practice, is learning how to write. And as much as law school likes to think they teach you how to do that, they really don’t. Q: Any other advice? A: If you really want to work in a nonprofit, it’s best to get a wide range of experience.
I worked in a law firm as a paralegal. I interned at the American Red Cross. I scoped
Q: What does the ASPCA look for when hiring
Because there are limited resources, you’re
out all the environments and tried to com-
frequently asked to do more things than a person in the same position at a corporation
bine my penchant for charitable work with my legal interests. Q: What are the rewards of working for an
A: I hired someone three weeks ago to re-
would do. You’re called upon to do a lot more.
place me in the counsel role. She’s actually
I started out doing just license agreements,
someone who worked at three of the largest
and I ended up doing contracts for every
continued on back
department of the organization. We don’t have a support staff. We don’t have paralegals. We don’t have a lot of administrative help. It’s a question of resources. You also have to be willing to pitch in and help with things a lawyer might not normally be doing. We were active in rescuing animals in buildings around Ground Zero after 9-11. I pitched in, and I was on the phone and making calls to residents, asking if they were able to get their pets out of their apartments. I’m a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person...and it certainly helps around here if you like getting your hands dirty! Q: Are you a cat or a dog person? A: Even though I have a cat, I’m a dog person. To be honest, I never liked cats. I like my cat because he’s more like a dog than a cat. If you open the front door, cats go diving under the bed and you don’t see them for a day. My cat, when I open the front door at night, comes running to the door at warp speed and licks my entire face for a solid 10 minutes! He’s a total companion.
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