In this episode Joyce Tischler discusses lessons learned from the founding of Animal Legal Defense Fund, which she founded in 1979. Today its annual budget is nearly $13 million and it has over 200,000 members and supporters. Joyce explains how she founded ALDF, what she learned, and gives some tips to anyone interested in starting a legal nonprofit today.
As founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 1979, Joyce Tischler has helped create and shape the emerging field of animal law. Joyce litigated some of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s earliest cases, including a 1981 lawsuit that halted the U.S. Navy’s plan to kill 5,000 feral burros, and a 1988 challenge to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s rule allowing the patenting of genetically altered animals. She was the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s first executive director for twenty-five years, and now serves as the agency’s general counsel.
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This transcript was prepared by Rev.com.
Voiceover: Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week, Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi. I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: I’m Aaron Street. This is Episode 138 of The Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Joyce Tischler, Executive Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund about how to start a legal nonprofit.
Sam Glover: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Clio Legal Practice Management Software. Clio makes running your law firm easier. Try it for free today at clio.com.
Aaron Street: Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Ruby Receptionists and it’s smart, charming receptionists who are perfect for small firms. Visit callruby.com/lawyerist to get a risk-free trial with Ruby.
Sam, last week we spoke with Rikke Hansen about what to do if you want a career change, including a few minutes about how to think about how to save the world as part of your career change.
Sam Glover: Or what to do with those feelings, at least.
Aaron Street: Yeah, yeah. This week we’re kind of riffing off of that, and you’re going to talk with Joyce about how to start a successful legal nonprofit. You and I both have friends through TBD and the rest of the small firm legal community who’ve found ways to try to solve similar access to justice legal problems with similar client pricing models but in both for-profit and nonprofit firm settings. I thought it’d be interesting to kind of, as we preview the discussion you’re about to have with Joyce, talk about, for a minute, how to think through the distinction between solving these problems in for-profit versus nonprofit formats.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Specifically, Shantelle Argyle, who’s been on the podcast, has a legal nonprofit out in Utah. Emily Cooper, who hasn’t been on the podcast, but has been … Yeah, she’ll be, eventually. She has a for-profit law firm here in Minnesota. They both use almost the identical sliding scale. I think it actually is identical or close enough that it bottoms out at 75 bucks an hour to represent their clients and a lot of family law, some other stuff. Shantelle has a bit of a wider client base. Point being, Emily is … her goal for this year is, I think, a million bucks in gross revenue. Shantelle is a nonprofit, and they’re not starving, but they’re definitely not going after that same sort of successful business model, and it’s-
Aaron Street: Well, they are going after a successful business model. They’re just not going after profit.
Sam Glover: Yeah, right, but that comes along with lower wages for everyone who works there. It’s interesting to me that they’re both doing, essentially, the same type of good in the world with very, very different business models around it. I guess that part of me is like I really don’t think that you have to think about access to justice as sort of nonprofit charity work.
Aaron Street: Right. At the same time, I think what Shantelle is doing, and what we’re going to hear from Joyce, the role of nonprofits in providing legal assistance is super important. But it is interesting that, I think, most people jump to the conclusion that, kind of, if pro bono public interest access to justice issues are the things that they either are passionate about or want to pursue, that nonprofits are the path there. I think it’s interesting that there are models both ways, all of which are successful. They are both meeting the needs that they’re striving to and are able to grow and sustain themselves according to their goals. But I like that we don’t have to start from the premise of nonprofit. That said, if you’re going to start a legal nonprofit, I think your discussion with Joyce today is a really great primer on how to think through doing it successfully.
Sam Glover: Yeah. She says a lot of things that I wish nonprofits who had started that I’ve been involved with had known from the beginning. It’s really some valuable advice. ALDF has grown a lot, and you’ll hear more about that. We don’t talk a lot about what the Animal Legal Defense Fund does, but if you kind of know and if you’re sympathetic to the mission and you’re interested, if you want to attend the Animal Law Conference in October, you can tweet @animallawcon with the #lawyeristpodcast, and you’ll get a chance to win one of two free tickets. With that said, now here’s my conversation with Joyce.
Joyce Tischler: My name is Joyce Tischler. I’m a California attorney, and I’m the founder and general counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Sam Glover: Hi, Joyce. Thanks for being with us today. Besides defending animals, how does the Animal Legal Defense Fund go about doing that? Tell us what does the organization look like today?
Joyce Tischler: Today, the organization has about 45 employees. We’re based in California and in Portland, Oregon. Some of our employees are long-distance, remote, working out of their homes in Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and other places. We also have a volunteer pro bono network of attorneys, and that’s about 2,000 attorneys throughout the United States, including some of the biggest firms in the U.S. These attorneys handle cases for us and do a variety of research projects for us on a pro bono basis. We have a supporter base of around 200,000 people in the U.S. These are not necessarily lawyers. In fact, most are not.
We’re a national organization. We have few basic programs. The first one is litigation, where we bring civil suits and challenge institutional abuse of animals, and then our criminal justice program, in which we assist prosecutors of cruelty cases throughout the U.S. We have an animal law program, which focuses on introducing classes to law schools and helping student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapters start. We’re pretty much in most law schools in the U.S. today. Certainly, every ABA-accredited law school has either an animal law class or a student group.
Sam Glover: Wow.
Joyce Tischler: Then we have some minor legislative work and a few other things going on. We offer a fellowship program for people graduating law school who would like to learn how to litigate animal law cases. We’ve got our fingers in a lot of pots.
Sam Glover: Yeah, absolutely. That’s very cool stuff. When did you start ALDF?
Joyce Tischler: I started the group with another lawyer, Larry Kessenick, out here in San Francisco in 1979.
Sam Glover: Was it just the two of you?
Joyce Tischler: At first, yes. Yeah, it was just the two of us. It may seem like a no-brainer now, but at that point, it was an unusual thing to do. With me, what led me to that was I always loved animals from a very early age. We had dogs always. As soon as I could walk around the block, I was bringing home cats I thought were lost, probably stealing people’s cats and didn’t know it, bringing home injured birds. It was always there, that special connection. I’m one of those children of the ’60s, and a lot of nonprofits were formed coming out of the 1960s. For me, I became involved as an activist in 1968 when I was 15 years old and just stayed involved going from one movement to another, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, peace movement, feminism, prisoner’s rights, but I always came back to the animals. It was connecting those two dots, the social activism and the love of animals. That’s what took some time.
There was no legal group focused on protecting animals. There was nothing called animal law, no classes, nothing really. Coming out of the ’60s and reading a book called Animal Liberation by philosopher Peter Singer, I put the two together and thought, “This is the work I want to do.” I’d been out of law school a couple of years. I was working at a firm. The work they were doing was perfectly honorable. I just wasn’t interested in it. I knew, going in to law school, that I wasn’t a big corporate lawyer or a big firm lawyer. I had this activism. I was headed towards a nonprofit. It was just a matter of which one, and I ended up forming my own. As an activist, that came easily to me.
We started, the two of us, Larry and me, thinking, “Well, if there’s two of us, maybe there are more,” so we put an ad in our local legal newspaper. Six more people showed up, and that was our core group. We spent a few years teaching ourselves about the laws relating to animals, both nationally and in our state, the problems. At some point, people started coming to us wanting us to represent them.
Sam Glover: Was there much litigation around animal law at the time? I guess I’m just kind of wondering how did the idea that there might be enough work here for a nonprofit to do get into your head?
Joyce Tischler: We didn’t really approach it from is there enough work to do? We assumed there was. There was very little litigation being done, and it was very spotty. There were animal protection groups such as The Fund for Animals, and if they saw something that they wanted to litigate, they would hire some local attorney who knew nothing about how to protect animals but just was willing to work for them for free, for pro bono. What we wanted to do was develop a specialty, develop an ability to understand the various laws that relate to animals and to specialize in that, and then to do a really fine job.
Back in 1979, we all had jobs. In 1981, one of those tipping points came when we heard about a situation in China Lake, California, which is the middle of the Mojave Desert, in which the U.S. Navy had a problem with donkeys, burros, coming onto the air strip. Their solution was they were going to kill 5,000 of them. That seemed like an overreaction to me. I went into court. I pulled an all-nighter, went into court and got a TRO. As a result of that, we got a seed grant from a group called Animal Protection Institute. It was $6,000, but it was all I needed to leave the firm and start doing this work full-time.
Sam Glover: Til then, you’d been doing it for free.
Joyce Tischler: Yeah, yeah.
Sam Glover: Gotcha.
Joyce Tischler: Completely pro bono in my weekends and evenings. Really, you can’t practice law on your weekends and evenings. That’s not a way to do it properly. The seed grant got us going. A lot of people who’ve accomplished things have not known at the start that would be as hard as it is, which is a good thing, because maybe they wouldn’t have done it, and I’m one of those people. Once we got the seed grant, I started doing the work full-time, but the work included litigating, being the administrator, trying to build a board, trying to get us financially solid and do fund raising. I couldn’t do it all at once. I didn’t realize it for a while, and so I was beating myself up.
What I learned is that administering a nonprofit corporation … We incorporated. We formed a nonprofit corporation. Administering a nonprofit is very similar to administering a for-profit. The money comes in different ways, but you have to have sound fiscal management of a nonprofit. You don’t get a free pass. You’re running a business. I had to learn on the job a whole lot of things that they don’t teach you in law school. I’ve joked that I wish I had an MBA in addition to a JD, but I had to learn how to develop the board and how to bring people on who could benefit the corporation. I had to learn to be an administrator, hire people, fire people, coach them if they weren’t doing well.
I had to learn to fundraise, which is a terrifying thing for most people, but there’s a lot of help out there. If you’re passionate about what you do, you get over the tin cup mentality of, “Oh, dear. I’m begging for money.” You realize that you have something valuable for people to invest in. You’ve got the time. They’ve got the money. If you can come together, you can create some beautiful music.
Sam Glover: Where does your money come from now? Is it more from those 200,000 supporters or are you still relying on foundations or a combination?
Joyce Tischler: What has developed over the years is that it … The first 10 years were really rough, and we were bringing in money bits at a time.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I bet.
Joyce Tischler: For the first few years, we never had more than two-months’ income at any given time, which was scary and difficult, and so we started … I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I didn’t have money backing me up. None of us did. My entire board was young lawyers. We looked into how could we bring in money. We tried some grant writing to some of the bigger animal protection groups, and they weren’t interested in supporting us because we didn’t … They would rather bring on staff. Finally, we did something called direct marketing, which is those letters and phone calls, the telemarketing, the stuff you get via email today, which didn’t exist then. Back then, it was mainly letters to people in the mail, junk mail. If people would respond, then they would become our members, and we would build from there.
Once we got a stable source of income from doing direct mail, then we began other forms of fundraising. Fundraising is … There’s a certain amount of art, but there’s a lot of science to it. It’s not magical. When people show that they can give more money, you start to meet with them. You call them on the phone. You meet with them at their homes or at restaurants. Those people become what are called major donors. You tell people, through your newsletter, to please donate to the organization in their will. That’s a very inexpensive, simple way to get people to put an organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, into their will. At first, there were just trickles of money, and now it’s a significant part of our income, which is interesting. Once you’ve been doing this for 20, 30 years, people have left you in their wills, and it’s a significant source of income. Today, we also got to foundations. Again, back in the early ’80s, there were not many foundations giving to animal protection. Today, they are many more. We’ve diversified our sources of income. Our first annual budget was $12,000. Today, we’re around 8 million, so we’ve grown.
Sam Glover: Wow. Yeah, no kidding. I’m wondering how much of your time were you able to spend on actual legal advocacy versus fundraising and things? Because I think that’s a concern that a lot of people have when it comes to starting a nonprofit is, “Will I actually be able to do it or am I just going to be asking for money all the time?”
Joyce Tischler: It’s both. Yes, you will be asking for money all the time. Get used to it. If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently. I would build a pot of money so that we had operating funds for a couple of years, and that wouldn’t have been all that much money back in the ’80s, and then I would have hired someone else to do the fundraising. For me, success has been every time I can give away a piece of my job to someone else, then I know I’m doing well, and I did that over time.
Sam Glover: Which looks a lot like a for-profit business. I mean it-
Joyce Tischler: It is.
Sam Glover: It’s the same thing, yeah.
Joyce Tischler: Yeah, it’s very much like a for-profit. You need to plan. You need to get into strategic planning. You need to focus on some things and say no to other things when your focus is getting too wide. You need to meet the legal requirements with the Internal Revenue Service. There are annual filings with the IRS. You need to meet the reporting requirements with the State Attorney General, Secretary of State. You need to have board meetings with minutes. I mean all of this, as I said earlier, is part of running a business, and you need to attend to those details.
There came a point, frankly, where I had to choose other people … I was able to hire other people, and I had to choose between litigating and being the administrator. I felt that I had the skills to be an administrator, and so I went in that direction and hired other people to do the litigation. Today, we’ve got litigators. We’ve got communications people. We’ve got development department. We’ve got IT and operations. We’ve now got experts doing the things that little old Joyce was doing back in 1979, and not very well. I was all over the place.
Sam Glover: Well, I need to take quick break to hear from our sponsors. When we come back, I want to talk to you about that growth and how you managed it over the years. We’ll hear from our sponsors for just a moment, and then we’ll be right back.
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We’re back. Joyce, I’m curious about how the organization has grown, how you helped it grow, and how your thinking about that has changed over the years. Did it feel like there was just sort of a groundswell of support that kept growing or did you really have a vision for how you wanted the organization to grow and go about it strategically?
Joyce Tischler: I always felt that I wanted the organization to be lean and mean, and I had certain models that I looked to of nonprofit organizations that I thought were operating in a way that I liked. I never wanted us to get too big, because I thought we … I’d seen organizations that get so large that they’re appealing to the mainstream, and they lose their core message. That’s not something I wanted us to do. I did have role models all of the way for a variety of things. For example, in the early days, there was group that’s now called Earth Justice. Back then, it was called Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. They were nearby, and their executive director was very kind to me, would take me out to lunch, and we’d talk about how things are running. We’d talk about how to select litigation. We put together a committee of litigators to oversee litigation that I wanted to bring, because for those who are litigators, you get very involved emotionally very quickly, and I needed to be able to have a group that would step back and look at it objectively.
We grew over time. There’s been a lot of experimentation that’s gone on, and I’ll give you an example. In the early days, people would call and they’d say, “My next-door neighbor has put his dog in the back yard. The dog has no coverage, no shade, all he gets is food and water, and he barks the whole day long. What can I do about that? I’ve called the Humane Society. I’ve called the police. No one will do anything.” That person might be in Minneapolis, or Paducah, Iowa, or someplace in North Carolina, and we were a tiny group sitting in California. There was nothing I could do. It was very frustrating, but out of the frustration came an idea. The idea was if prosecutors can prosecute such a case or are willing to prosecute such a case, we, as lawyers, can help them in the background quietly. We can do legal research for them. We can find sentencing options, and charging options, and expert witnesses on whether a turtle feels pain, or whether an opossum feels pain, or whether that cat died of starvation or disease. With that, that kernel of an idea, we started what is now a major program.
As I said, it’s been experimental. Some programs we started and then we said, “You know what? This is mission drift. We need to just let go of that. Let somebody else do that. It’s a good idea, but it’s not something we ought to do.”
Sam Glover: You have a pretty clear vision that you measure your strategies and your projects and things against.
Joyce Tischler: Yes, that’s correct. We do. We haven’t always had that clear vision, but we have developed it over time. We got involved in strategic planning, I think, for the first time in 2000, which … I’m a firm believer in strategic planning, but if, at that time, someone commented that we were a mile wide and an inch deep, and that’s not a compliment. You can’t be all over the place. You can’t focus effectively on every … for us, it’s every animal problem. For any business, you get more of what you focus on, so you better focus on stuff and do it well. For us, it meant saying goodbye to certain programs that just weren’t working for us and focusing on other programs where we thought, “Okay, if we focus on this, we could really make some progress. We can dig deeper.”
That’s what we’ve done over the years. We do it every three years. It has helped us to grow in so many ways, particularly financially. One of those strategic planning times was where we said, “Okay. We’re doing good work, but we’re not bringing in enough money, and that’s holding us back. So how are we going to focus on strategically bringing in more money?” We did, and it worked. It was an interesting transition. That’s when we really doubled our budget from about 4,000 to 8,000.
Sam Glover: How do you commit to spend money on strategic planning, time and money on strategic planning, when you’re strapped for one or both?
Joyce Tischler: We have always had to make choices about where we spend our time and our money. Strategic planning works for us, and so we do it. We have to. If we don’t do it, we’re going to get lost, and we are going to experience more mission drift. You can see that if you’re looking closely at certain nonprofits. You can see that, over time, they’re just not doing … They’re not as sharp as they used to be. They’re not as focused. Their message is not as clear as it used to be. We’ve always, somehow, found a way to find the money to do what we wanted to do.
Way back when, people started leaving us stock or giving us stock. Instead of using it for then-current budget needs, we just socked it away and socked it away. By doing that, over about a 10-year period, we built a really nice investment fund for ourselves. That’s our nest egg.
Sam Glover: Very cool.
Joyce Tischler: That was another way to plan ahead.
Sam Glover: Well, you were talking with other organizations. My sister worked for Justice up in southeast Alaska, so that resonates with me. While you were talking with other organizations, I was reflecting on my own experience with nonprofits. It often feels, and maybe this is even more acute in the legal world where it’s a smaller world and there are plenty of non profits, it often feels like there’s a real territorialness going on both for defending my turf for funding reasons or whatever. How do you deal with that? It is you just become the biggest badass and you blow everybody else out of the water or do you build connections? How do you approach that, and how do you try and … I feel like I want it to be less.
Joyce Tischler: Yes. Personally, I just accept that it is what it is, and if we all just accept that and also realize that there’s not a finite amount of money out there, and one can build new sources of income. Sometimes we are riding the coat tails of the larger organizations. Direct mail, direct marketing is … It’s not that it’s complex, but there’s a real system built in of what lists you go to and who you purchase or rent lists from. I don’t know if you want to get into all that. It’s its own cottage industry. By using that, we were able to build our list. We were able to be strategic. I realize I’m using the word strategic a lot.
Sam Glover: That’s all right. That’s all right.
Joyce Tischler: We were able to be strategic about that and to be business-like about doing fundraising. One of the things I learned was that it’s not finite. If you build your nest, you may also be building someone else’s. I think we all realize that to some extent. Yes, there is competition. Yes, there is a lack of trust. That just is what is in the nonprofit field. We’re always looking for ways to partner with other groups, and we do partner with many other groups. What that brings us is they may have knowledge on a topic that we’re not as knowledgeable about. Especially as lawyers, we need to have people specialize on what is a factory farm and what are the practices that are going on there or what’s happening in research labs. We can’t be the experts on everything, so partnership is our MO. We do it all the time.
Sam Glover: You consciously seek out higher ground and try to support rather than contend with others?
Joyce Tischler: Yes, yeah. I mean because there’s enough to go around for everybody. Those partnerships have been very valuable to us over the years and will continue to be. One of the things that’s happening now in our field is that we’re finding common ground with environmentalists over the issue of factory farming. We are creating partnerships there and creating a bigger tent for everybody.
Sam Glover: Yeah. It feels like the current environment, maybe it’s not quite the ’60s, but I know a lot of people, lawyers included, are starting to feel like, “What am I doing with my life? I need to go and help people.” They’re … whatever, whatever kinds of people or whatever issues you care deeply about. I know because I hear from a lot of lawyers that they want to go start a mission-driven nonprofit to make change. As someone who’s done that a while ago now and had a lot of experiences and success over the years, what advice would you give to somebody in 2017 who feels compelled to do something like that?
Joyce Tischler: Okay, yes. Follow your passion. Live the life you were meant to live, is my first piece of advice, and you will be a happy person. You won’t be the richest person around, but you’ll be very happy lawyer. There’s so much information and advice and so many resources out there from Nolo Press about how to start a nonprofit, how to manage a nonprofit, how to fundraise for a nonprofit. Just go online. Nolo Press is one book publisher, but there are many others. There’s so much information on the internet.
Board development, you’ll need to focus on board development and understand what is a beginning board, what’s a middle-range board, and what’s a very sophisticated institutional board? There’s a group called BoardSource, and they have a variety of materials, again, aimed at helping nonprofits make the most out of their board and be successful. HR is another hole. Each of these buckets has to be filled with knowledge, and you need to understand what it is to be an administrator. Again, there are many, many books on the shelves about how to be an administrator, how to be a … One-Minute Manager is the name of one … how to draw on the people who are interested in what you’re doing.
There’s a lot on fundraising. There’s a group called the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Early on, I found this group, and they were wonderful. I had an individual mentor. I would go to their conferences. I learned so much from these folks. It was different from what you described before of the competitiveness in the nonprofit world. These people were happy to share their knowledge, and it was just delightful, and still is, to be around these fundraising professionals.
There is a lot that you will need to learn. You can learn it all. Don’t try to learn it all at once because that will overwhelm you, but over time, you can. If you’re particularly interested in animal law, check out our website, aldf.org. If you’re interested in working for a group, we have a lot of openings that are listed on our website. If you want to get to know the people in the animal law movement, come to our conference. It’s in Portland, October 13th to 15th, and it’s at www.animallawconference.org for more information. There are so many ways to get into the vein of the nonprofit world that you’re passionate about, conferences, online resources, books, mentors. It’s doable.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Speaking of your conference, your organization is offering two free tickets to the Animal Law Conference. Listeners can tweet @amimallawcon, that’s the Twitter handle, using the #lawyeristpodcast saying why they would like to attend, and they’ll pick two winners.
Joyce Tischler: Oh, lovely.
Sam Glover: If you’re listening to this close in time, go ahead and do that, and you might be a lucky recipient. Joyce, I’d like to ask you one last question by way of closing, and that’s what do you know now about starting a legal nonprofit that you wish you knew 25 years ago?
Joyce Tischler: Oh, boy. I’ve alluded to that earlier. If I knew how hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it, so I’m glad I didn’t know that. I’m glad that I was able to learn on the job slowly, painfully at times. I wish I knew I was going to be a success. Maybe I wouldn’t have had so many nights where I was waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Sam Glover: Yeah. Do you wish you had started strategic planning earlier?
Joyce Tischler: Yes. Yes, I do. I wish I had done what I said earlier, which was I didn’t feel like I could go to … I didn’t know major funders, but I didn’t feel like I could go to someone and say, “Hey, believe in me. Trust in me. I know what I’m doing, and I’m going to build this agency,” before I ever filed my first lawsuit. I did it the other way around. I wish I’d had some money up front. I would have had fewer sleepless nights.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Well, Joyce, thank you so much for being with us. I really enjoyed learning more about ALDF but also about your journey of starting a legal nonprofit, so thanks very much.
Joyce Tischler: Thanks, Sam. Thanks for having me on.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of The Lawyerist Podcast by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast app, and please leave a rating to help other people find our show. You can find the notes for today’s episode on lawyerist.com/podcast.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.