10 Questions with Emmett Robertson

Emmett Robertson is an attorney at Rubric Legal LLC, where his practice is centered in compliance for non-profits and tax-exempt organizations. 

What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

Talk to me about cats, local restaurants you like, local and/or small batch whiskey (especially rye whiskey), or Minnesota United.

What inspired you to specialize in nonprofit law?

I had been working in nonprofits, mostly in fundraising, and through that fell into a job with a small local law firm that was known for working almost entirely with nonprofits (and one of the attorneys was nationally known for her expertise). I had taken the LSAT but thought law school wasn’t for me. However, through that job I saw that I could work with clients that were generally all trying to make the world a better place, I didn’t have to litigate, didn’t have to deal with opposing counsel all that often, and could dress casually.

Can you share some key challenges you've observed nonprofits face, and how your legal expertise can address them?

Well, I work mostly with small to medium-sized nonprofits, so they are heavy on mission, maybe more light on compliance (though not necessarily intentionally). Most people, in my experience, seem to think something along the lines of “it’s just a nonprofit.” However, nonprofit tax-exempt organizations are actually regulated far more than most people understand (including lawyers). My job is generally to help them stay compliant with the complicated web of state and federal regulation that applies (particularly to charities), and try to help them clean up the inevitable messes. I think I tend to be pretty good at explaining complicated concepts in plain language, and I like messes as long as people are generally trying to do the right thing. 

You’re co-chair of the Hennepin County Bar Association’s LINC program. How does this further the work of local nonprofits?

This program is geared at helping lawyers who want to or already do serve on nonprofit boards. Lawyers can be valuable assets on a nonprofit board, but the program is also geared at helping them understand the complexity of the sector and how to flag issues. Flagging issues and providing general legal analysis is probably the most valuable thing a lawyer can add to a board. However, part of what I try to communicate is that even though the nonprofit may really want you to give them pro bono help and you want to help them, that actually isn’t always in their best interest and it’s okay to say no (and, frankly, our ethics rules actually require that to some degree).

How do you see the landscape of nonprofits and nonprofit law evolving in the coming years, and what opportunities or challenges do you anticipate?

Wow, that is a big question, and I could probably take most of this issue explaining my thoughts. However, if I were to name the biggest challenge, it would be the underfunding of the IRS over the past decade, combined with a partisan use of the Exempt Organization division of the IRS, which has resulted in abysmally low oversight and basically a toothless regulator. The regulation of the tax-exempt sector is important to make sure organizations are using their resources for proper purposes (and thus our subsidy of them is worthwhile). Audits and regulation ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that make sure our subsidy of activities is worthwhile. Continued use of that agency/department as a political football really challenges the integrity of the sector long term.

What’s a skill that you didn’t anticipate being valuable earlier in your career that’s served you well?

I was raised in a very conservative (religiously and politically) environment and so I learned early on to communicate with people I don’t necessarily agree with and see past the disagreement. That has been helpful to me because it is not uncommon that I do not resonate with or even agree with the primary purpose of some of my clients. But the way I view it, agreeing with them isn’t my job – my job is just to help them exist in a compliant manner.

Talk about a particularly memorable client or project that highlights the impact of your work.

This was actually the hardest question on this list to answer. I don’t think I can choose. Virtually all of my clients are small organizations powered by people who want to make the world a better place in some way. I am happy to just to be someone that can help facilitate that energy – we need it.

You live and work in downtown Minneapolis—what are some of your favorite places to grab a bite?

Downtown: Zen Box Izakaya, Wrecktangle Pizza, Parlour Bar. Almost downtown: Gai Noi. Not in downtown but worth the trip: Hai Hai, Blue Door Pub (especially the fried green beans), Maya Cuisine (especially their salsa bar and churros).

Tell us more about your experience as the (totally secular) Santa Lawyer.

Well, Santa Lawyer started as an excuse to expose my adoration/obsession with Christmas—but not in a religious way—just the love of the iconography, spirit of giving/charity/kindness, and sparkly things. Santa Lawyer is a persona that has been part of a charitable contest/giveaway from my law office, has involved me riding around on motorcycle in a Santa costume, sponsoring a Santa pub crawl, literally carrying my Christmas tree from Northeast Minneapolis to downtown across the Hennepin Avenue bridge while wearing a Santa costume ... and the list goes on (and probably will be added to). Mostly it is just about me being a bit of ham and wanting to bring smiles, laughter, and a spirit of kindness and generosity to the world.

What are you reading and watching right now?

Reading: The House of Hidden Meanings (Ru Paul’s Memoir). Watching: Lots of MLS, lots of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, The Chi, re-watching Quantico, FBI, The Good Doctor.
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