Counsels for Change

From The Practice May/June 2024
Exploring the careers of mission-driven general counsel

In this story, we look at lawyers working on campaigns for change. Exploring the careers of lawyers at the Environmental Defense Fund, the Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we showcase how such individuals traverse the legal, regulatory, and ethical landscape for general counsel in mission-driven contexts. How much of their job is “usual” in-house tasks, whether employment issues, regulation, or compliance? How much of their role relates to the core mission of their organizations, such as impact litigation, policy advising, and advocacy?

Together, these stories illustrate different ways one might campaign for change—whether through managing operational legal needs, advocacy, or risk management. Each of these individuals holds the general counsel position at their organization, but not one is only the general counsel. As we have written about previously, general counsel are increasingly being elevated to higher leadership positions within their organizations. Perhaps more relevant, in these situations, is the very real necessity of lawyers—and others—in nonprofit and advocacy to don multiple hats. In these three vignettes, we learn how much of mission-oriented general counsel (or general counsel plus) roles is governance (often, a lot), what it means to them to work in an organization campaigning for changes (“core” to their identities), and what they do when things get tough (look to that “North Star” mission).

Vickie Patton, General Counsel and Head of the U.S. Clean Air Program, Environmental Defense Fund

While an undergrad hydrology major at the University of Arizona, Vickie Patton wrote herself a note. “You may pursue going to law school if you will practice environmental law working in the public interest,” it said. She still has that piece of paper—a personal mission statement—a reminder for when things got tough. Today, she is general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental organization committed to collaborations and projects around the world that help build a more durable future for the people and the planet. And while Patton maintains that she “never expected to be EDF’s general counsel” and simply “followed [her] heart,” her trajectory, the grit and passion with which she followed what she believed in, and the impact she has had along the way tell another story.

Vickie Patton
Vickie Patton

Growing up “in a time and place where there were a lot of environmental challenges,” Patton realized early on she “wanted to be part of the solution,” she says. She didn’t know many lawyers, much less environmental lawyers. She found her way to the Arizona Center for Law and the Public Interest, where she knocked on the door and asked to volunteer with the state’s only environmental nonprofit attorney. She also worked at a small science firm on hydrology analysis in underserved communities in Tucson impacted by toxic groundwater. That work was essential to her choice to pursue law—and not science—in order to stop a bad situation before it became a problem. “Once the toxins are in the groundwater, it’s really hard to clean them up,” she says. “We would have these extensive technical reports where we were trying to evaluate whether we were making a difference. But we weren’t really making a difference,” she says. She decided, “I love science, but I want to try to get to a place where we can prevent the toxic waste from contaminating the groundwater in the first instance.”

During law school, she continued knocking on doors—immediately introducing herself to the new environmental law assistant professor, who remains a mentor to this day. (Years later they collaborated on Supreme Court cases to protect climate and clean air.) She interned at the Natural Resources Defense Council and EDF during law school, then relocated to Washington, D.C., immediately after taking the bar exam. Her first job out of law school was helping to draft and implement the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments in the Office of the General Counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At EDF, Patton is a leader in thinking about legal strategies to create policy change, often in a challenging political environment.

Working at the EPA was life-changing. “This is exactly what I studied in law school: Congress enacts laws, and expert agencies implement them,” Patton recalls thinking. But the EPA’s approach was just one version of change. Returning to EDF as a staff attorney years later, she realized there she could make use of an “array of tools.” She elaborates:

One of the great things about working at the Environmental Defense Fund is that you can look at a problem and approach it from a practical lens and say, ‘OK, what is the most effective tool in my tool kit to try to make a difference?’ It may be that there is some additional science that is essential. It may be that a really meaningful partnership with a community group or with the private sector could make a huge difference. It may mean that a communication strategy is quite important. Law is one of many pathways to help achieve lasting progress.

At EDF, Patton is a leader in thinking about legal strategies to create policy change, often in a challenging political environment. Sometimes that means testifying in Congress’s Committee on Environment and Public Works to strengthen protections on mercury emissions. Some of that has been driving litigation, like defending clean vehicle standards in courts when such regulations are challenged or bringing a case all the way up to the Supreme Court in order to hold coal plants accountable for not updating their pollution controls. Much of Patton’s work is strategic and external facing. Expert corporate counsel at EDF provide a core legal foundation for the organization and its advocacy work and are critical to ensuring that a large nonprofit can operate effectively.

But as general counsel Patton also does work that is not strictly legal. For instance, she has been helping EDF start or grow organizations where there are gaps, bolstering community voices, and driving partnerships in order to multiply impact. She points to two examples that have been particularly critical in our current moment.

It is difficult to overstate how important it is to have that North Star [mission].

Vickie Patton, General Counsel and Head of the U.S. Clean Air Program, Environmental Defense Fund

“More than a decade ago, we thought that there is a really important voice for everyone who is part of caring about our children, who are very vulnerable to environmental harms, to be part of the conversation,” Patton says. EDF collaborated with Dominique Browning and Sue Mandel to found the Moms Clean Air Force. “And that is not about litigation,” Patton says. “It is about showing up in all of these crucial conversations and forums with policymakers to help inform and underscore what is really at stake for people’s lives and the decisions they’re making.” Today, Moms Clean Air Force (a special project of EDF) is a “community of 1.5 million moms, dads, and caregivers all across the country who bring a variety of perspectives and are united by a commitment to ensuring that every child has a shot at reaching their full potential free of the scourge of health and environmental harms.” Likewise, Patton has been a part of spearheading a program called Community Voices in Energy cocreated with Black in Green to help community members make their voices directly heard in arcane and opaque public utility decisions “where equitable clean energy transitions can save lives, save money in electricity and gas bills, and help communities thrive,” says Patton.

As general counsel at EDF, Patton says the organization’s mission and values are “our North Star.” In addition to her role as general counsel, she is also head of the U.S. Legal and Regulatory Program. “EDF’s mission and core values guide us and they anchor all of my work. This helps me show up for the colleagues I am supporting, the initiatives EDF is advancing, or whatever conversation I’m in, trying to do the best I can within my limited ability to help EDF navigate and solve problems and be an effective organization.

“It is difficult to overstate how important it is to have that North Star,” Patton says. “Whether we’re facing challenges or opportunities, that is what guides us. We’re operating in a very polarized, complex, and fast-paced society, and so it’s a real test of whether we are living by those core values.”

Nicole Greenidge-Hoskins, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation

From a young age, Nicole Greenidge-Hoskins had a strong sense of the importance of service and the desire to make a positive contribution to society.

“My family was service-oriented,” says Greenidge-Hoskins. “My father led the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in several African countries where I grew up.” Both the UNDP’s mission and vision to end poverty and build democratic governance, rule of law, and inclusive institutions and her father’s work to advance the mission figured prominently in shaping her values.

Nicole Greenidge-Hoskins
Nicole Greenidge-Hoskins

Growing up, Greenidge-Hoskins and her family spent time in Southern Africa at the height of apartheid. Seeing such injustices firsthand and hearing the experiences of family friends under the apartheid regime drove her to pursue work to advance justice, equity, and equality.

She always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Now, as senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary to the Human Rights Campaign, Inc. (HRC) and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC Foundation), she engages daily in corporate legal work to sustain the two organizations.

Now, more than ever, a general counsel must have both business and legal acumen to meet the organization’s needs,

Together, HRC and the HRC Foundation comprise the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ+ equality. HRC is a 501(c)(4) social welfare entity operated primarily to advance the common good and general welfare of the LGBTQ+ community. The HRC Foundation is a 501(c)(3) educational and research organization that works to increase understanding of the LGBTQ+ community and encourage the adoption of LGBTQ+ inclusive policies and practices.

Greenidge-Hoskins has worked in-house at a number of organizations of various types, sizes, and complexities. The common denominator in these organizations is that they have been mission-driven, at least in part, and focused on advancing the common good. Regardless of the industry and the nature of the organization, Greenidge-Hoskins believes that the core work of in-house general counsel is largely the same.

“The work is to provide strategic legal advice and counsel for the entity itself. As general counsel, my client is the corporation manifested in its board of directors, the president and CEO, and the senior management team. The work is to utilize one’s mastery of applicable laws, rules, and regulations to develop and implement strategies to achieve strategic objectives,” Greenidge-Hoskins says.

Now, more than ever, a general counsel must have both business and legal acumen to meet the organization’s needs, Greenidge-Hoskins says. This means staying up-to-date with emerging technologies and their implications for the organization and the legal department, not just from a risk management perspective but also as resources to advance productivity and efficiency.

For Greenidge-Hoskins and her team at HRC and the HRC Foundation, it is always a balancing act to focus on these priorities while ensuring that the routine day-to-day legal work is accomplished: board governance; contract drafting and negotiation; protection of the organization’s intellectual property; and labor and employment, tax, and real estate matters. Of course, the substantive legal work must also be balanced with managing the operations of a legal department, budgets, the in-house legal team, and outside counsel.

Pursue work that aligns with who you are.

Nicole Greenidge-Hoskins, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Human Rights Campaign and Human Rights Campaign Foundation

“Doing work that advances and sustains organizations whose missions align with my own values is tremendously meaningful to me!” says Greenidge-Hoskins. “In my various roles, I’ve been able to bring my commitment to equity and justice and my desire to make a societal contribution to the work,” she adds.

Prior to her position with HRC and the HRC Foundation, Greenidge-Hoskins worked in-house in various health care settings, including at a large multihospital health system, the District of Columbia’s public hospital, and the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides health care services to LGBTQ+ individuals and the broader community. When a friend approached her about the opportunity at HRC and the HRC Foundation, she jumped at it even though supporting lobbying, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and electoral work was new terrain. Right away she recognized an alignment between HRC and the HRC Foundation’s mission and vision and her own values. Greenidge-Hoskins acknowledges that these days, organizations whose missions involve advancing equity, equality, civil rights, social justice, and the people whom they serve are under vicious attacks. “For those of us who work to advance these causes, today’s climate demands that we work harder,” she says.

Greenidge-Hoskins’s advice for the next generation? “Be fearless in the pursuit of your objectives.” She has made mentoring a key part of her career. When she speaks to young law students and fellows, she urges them to “pursue work that aligns with who you are,” she says. She adds: “We spend so much of our lives working that it’s important to approach a career as a journey of self-discovery. Find what is meaningful to you. Be curious and adventurous in your pursuit of it!”

Ricardo Castro, Vice President, General Counsel, and Board Secretary, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Ricardo Castro might not have set out to enter the world of foundations, but after more than 25 years lawyering at some of the most influential nonprofit organizations in the world, he sees it as a pivotal pillar in society. “I don’t know if you would call it a fourth column, maybe a fifth column, but it plays a really important role,” he says. “Where government can’t or won’t act on certain issues, philanthropy can really step in and make a difference.”

Currently vice president, general counsel, and board secretary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the largest national foundation dedicated to health and health equity, Castro spends much of his day focused on governance, conflict of interest, compliance, and policy—the types of things that you might imagine a general counsel doing. His deep expertise in the regulatory world of nonprofits was honed from years in in-house roles at organizations like the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the Ford Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and the International Rescue Committee. Each of these roles offered Castro the opportunity to dig deep into the complex legal and regulatory structures of tax-exempt organizations, all within mission-driven contexts. “When you’re at a large philanthropy, you’re getting a window into many different areas of social change,” he says, meaning that even though Castro was not actively focused on setting policy priorities, he felt fulfilled, personally and professionally.

Ricardo Castro
Ricardo Castro

Castro’s parents migrated from Cuba shortly after the Cuban Revolution, and he grew up in a largely immigrant community in New Jersey. Early on, he says, he saw the power of advocacy. “My parents and many people in my community didn’t speak English, so I would be lent out by my parents to help interpret at the unemployment office or when someone went to visit a lawyer or when they had to deal with any sort of ‘officialdom.’” He saw the impact lawyers could have.

After graduating from NYU Law School, he went to a corporate law firm as a “training ground” before decamping for public interest work. “I begged for a job at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing direct legal services work,” he says. “I felt it was really important to serve that particular community that I was a part of, and it was a really critical moment in the AIDS crisis, particularly in New York City.”

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ricardo Castro is anchored by the sense that he is working for something that closely aligns with his values.

When he joined Open Society shortly after, it was somewhat of a fluke at the stray suggestion of a friend. Still, he stayed there for 16 years, eventually becoming general counsel and secretary. Working at OSF, along with other global organizations like the International Rescue Committee, adds extra layers of complexity, he says. “For instance, at the Open Society Institute, if George Soros woke up on a Monday and said, ‘I really, really would like to do something in Kenya in the coming year, and I would like to do X, Y, and Z,’ you have to figure out, ‘Well, is that something that you can do in Kenya? Does the law permit it? What are the risks?’” he poses as a hypothetical.

At both the OSF and IRC, he was dealing with multiple jurisdictions (sometimes societies in transition or conflict regions), collaborating with local counsel, and working on employment and staffing for offices around the world. Working at the IRC, in particular, presented nuances because “roughly 75 percent of its funding came from governments,” he says. “When you rely that heavily on government funding, it changes the nature of the work that you do as lawyers for the organization. A lot of time is spent ensuring compliance with government regulations.” By the time he left, the IRC had offices in almost 40 countries around the world. Still, despite the increased difficulty, it was meaningful for him to work with the organization that helped with his own parents’ resettlement efforts in the United States.

Working in philanthropy has been “core to my identity,” Castro says. At RWJF, he is anchored by the sense that he is working for something that closely aligns with his values. “RWJF is very focused on dismantling structural racism, because we believe strongly that it is at the core of the continuing disparities in health outcomes for people of color in the country, particularly for the Black community,” he says. “I feel that everything I do, even if I’m not working on the program side directly, that I’m enabling that work.” This is something he tells his team, too, when they’re contending with their own challenges. “It’s important to remind them that the reason we’re dealing with these issues that may not be very glamorous is because we need to in order to ensure that the work can go on and that it can go on in a way that is compliant, that will keep us on the right side of things,” he says.

When you’re at a large philanthropy, you’re getting a window into many different areas of social change.

Ricardo Castro, Vice President, General Counsel, and Board Secretary, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Private foundations traverse complicated landscapes. Regulations govern their grant-giving and rules around lobbying. Foundations and their staff cannot, for instance, engage in any sort of electioneering or canvassing. “I think it’s good for people when they enter the space to understand what the space is about, to understand how it functions, what motivates it, what drives it, what the values are,” says Castro. And this is not simply about the substance, but is it a place like IRC where your job has even more layered difficulties due to government grants? Is that something you want to contend with? Or do you want to work at a foundation where you are barred from publicly supporting candidates? He urges students to think carefully not just about their values but about how such values map onto the operational and legal requirements of an organization. And perhaps most important, Castro says, “I don’t think you should go to an organization just because it’s a not-for-profit. I think you probably want to go to that organization if it somehow coincides with your worldview.”

The takeaway

Each person in this story—no matter the way in which their general counsel role is operationalized—is deeply motivated by a sense of mission. Patton at the EDF shows what it’s like to be in the trenches: working on strategy, policy, and programming to accomplish environmental goals. Greenidge-Hoskins at HRC illustrates how someone can be deeply motivated by the mission while excited by the complex mechanizations of managing two advocacy arms: a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4). Castro at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has built his career on the importance of how philanthropy can multiply ones’ impact. What brings each of these stories together is the common importance of campaigning for change: in the legal field, some people have to make sure the contracts are signed; some have to bring lawsuits to the Supreme Court. Each role is crucial in the campaign for social justice.