What Do You Need to Know about Association Law?

3 min

With only 350 words allotted for this article, you can be sure that the answer to the question posed in this article's headline is certain to be -- "Not very much." Unfortunately, for virtually all association executives -- from the membership assistant up to the CEO -- being able to spot legal red flags is critical to your association's legal health, and to your professional success. While you need not go to law school and read all back issues of Association Law & Policy, having a very basic, even superficial, understanding of the core legal pitfalls associations often fall into can be invaluable.

Most associations do not have in-house lawyers that review each and every program, activity, publication, Web page, press release, and other initiative before it goes out. Nor do most assocations have the budgets to run all such matters by outside legal counsel. Consequently, it falls on association executives at all levels to know, at least on a rudimentary level, when it is necessary to address key legal concerns or get the lawyers involved.

Everyone knows that when your associations gets hit with an IRS audit notice, EEOC employment claim, third-party subpoena, or antitrust suit, you call your lawyer. But what can you do proactively -- before the damage is done -- to minimize your association's legal risks at the outset? A lot.

For instance, most association executives do not recognize that the copyright in articles and other works created by non-association employees (such as members or vendors) vests in the authors of such works, not your association. This is generally true even if you paid for the work and even if the work was prepared expressly for your association. However, without being the copyright owner, your association may not have the right to use the work again in another medium, to include the work in a later compilation, or to create derivative works based on the original. Fortunately, this problem can be effectively addressed by either obtaining copyright ownership at the outset through a written assignment or obtaining a sufficiently broad and perpetual written license to use the work. Many associations keep forms readily available for this purpose. Not knowing these legal realities, though, can -- and often does -- get associations into a hotbed of trouble.

Having a basic understanding of the fundamentals of copyright and trademark law, federal tax exemption, antitrust law, employment law, meeting contracts, endorsement liability, lobbying and political limitations and compliance, affiliated entity relationships, and corporate governance, among other areas, can be invaluable in knowing, for instance, when to obtain a copyright assignment from committee members developing a certification program, what steps to take when terminating an employee, and what affirmative disclosures are required by federal tax law, election law, and employment law.

There is much to know, to be sure. Were that not the case, I would likely have trouble making a living as an association lawyer. You do not need to know it all, but you do need to know how to spot the legal red flags, and what to do next.