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The rewards of in-house NFP roles

In a world where corporate law often steals the spotlight, award-winning GC Elisabeth Flett revealed the untapped potential and rewarding nature of the not-for-profit sector that lawyers should explore.

user iconGrace Robbie 04 June 2024 Big Law
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Speaking on a recent episode of The Corporate Counsel Show, Cancer Council NSW Elisabeth Flett – who won the Not-For-Profit Lawyer of the Year award and the Excellence Award at the 2024 Corporate Counsel Awards – discussed her journey of finding immense fulfilment in working with purpose-driven organisations and encouraged other lawyers to do so.

Reflecting on her experience, Flett observed a prevalent self-limiting mindset among corporate lawyers that assumes purpose-driven or not-for-profit organisations inherently offer lower-quality work and fewer opportunities for skill advancement.

“Being cautious is not a bad thing. But I would say, don’t assume that just because an organisation is purpose-driven or not for profit, whether it’s a charity, whether it’s a B Corp, that it’s going to have lower quality work. Or that you are not going to have the opportunity to advance your skills as a lawyer?” she said.


Reflecting on her experience, Flett effectively dispelled these misconceptions by commenting: “For me, that’s proven completely wrong. It became apparent through the interview process that this was not going to be the case, and it proved correct after I had entered the role.”

One of her major misconceptions was that people working in not-for-profit, while well intentioned, might need more expertise and skills found in corporate settings.

“I had this misconception that people would be very well intentioned but perhaps less knowledgeable or less skilled, and that might be frustrating for me.

“I didn’t want to feel like I’d just be spending a lot of time explaining the basics of a contract or trying to convince people that they needed a contract and step into a lower skill level,” she said.

However, Flett said this was rendered moot in light of her organisation’s sophistication and depth of expertise.

“It’s not been the case for me. I work for an organisation that is full of statisticians, cancer researchers, experts who have come from public health in government roles, and very senior IT professionals who are driving the back end of Cancer Council’s technology platforms, which have to be quite advanced in terms of what we’re doing,” she said.

Flett also emphasised the organisation’s proactive approach to privacy and cyber security, an area where they are ahead of many counterparts in the legal industry.

“We’ve done a lot of work on privacy and cyber security, [such] that when I’ve spoken with colleagues in the in-house industry, I’ve actually found that we’re quite ahead of the curve in terms of what people have been doing to increase their privacy and cyber maturity.

“All of these things, I think, are a misconception. There are organisations that do things better than others, no matter which industry you step into. A not-for-profit is no different,” she said.

Flett also revealed that working for a not-for-profit can be just as high adrenaline as working in the corporate world.

“It can also be high adrenaline. A crisis happens as often in this business as in any other. That might be a data breach. It might be that there’s been an incident and it means you’ve got to drop the pen and jump into supporting management in the same way that you do in any business,” she said.

Through the palpable sense of purpose and motivation within the organisation, Flett expressed that this drive and passion have been a huge motivator and a source of daily inspiration.

“People are really motivated to deliver outcomes and to make an impact, so that high level of motivation, enthusiasm, and drive is palpable. You step into Cancer Council and speak to anybody about what they’re working on, and they’re excited, they’re passionate, and that’s a huge motivator to work around passionate people,” she said.

Another aspect Flett has uncovered is the focus on best practices and high standards for the not-for-profit sector.

“There’s a huge focus as well on best practice. We’re delivering services in partnership with the government, where high standards are expected, or in partnership with philanthropists who are giving, you know, their personal funds to see. To see meaningful impact,” she said.

Working in partnership with the government and philanthropists enables a commitment to meaningful impact and has provided her with opportunities to excel as a legal professional and engage in high-quality work.

“It’s just been surprisingly brilliant in terms of the opportunities to really shine as a legal professional and do high-quality work. There’s been a great opportunity to get quite creative,” she said.

As the legal landscape continues to evolve, Flett’s experience resonates as a reminder that breaking free from self-imposed limitations can lead to unexpected and profoundly rewarding professional endeavours.