Skadden Fellow: Emily Friedman, "Funding Big Ideas That Make a Difference"

When Emily B. Friedman (’98) moved to Chicago for her Skadden Fellowship at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, she was glad for the opportunity to do public interest work while also being back in the Midwest and closer to her family in St. Louis, Missouri.

Eighteen years later, Emily still calls Chicago home, and through her work, she is still able to help make a difference in the lives of the city’s residents. An associate general counsel at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Emily helps staff from across the foundation navigate issues relating to tax-exempt law and is the dedicated internal legal adviser for three programs: Criminal Justice, Nuclear Challenges and Chicago Commit­ment, which is dedicated to supporting the city through grants and investments.

As a member of the Chicago Commitment team, Emily, along with other members, meets with community leaders and heads of local organizations to gather ideas on how best to boost the arts and culture and contend with social issues such as gun violence. She also reviews grants to ensure they fall within the range of permitted activities for 501(c)(3) private foundations.

“It’s these types of initiatives and the opportu­nity to hear first-hand from folks working on solving challenging issues of the day that makes working at MacArthur, as my general counsel puts it, an ‘intellectual feast,’” Emily says.

The MacArthur Foundation is one of the larg­est private philanthropic organizations in the nation and awards grants to both individuals and institutions. It may be best known for its no-strings-attached $625,000 “genius” prizes to promote individual creative endeavors, but its scope is much greater. The foundation has awarded more than $5 billion in grants since its founding 38 years ago. Its Big Bets programs fund initiatives that tackle key social concerns, including climate change, the threat of nuclear weapons and criminal justice reform.

Emily, who went to law school hoping to effect social change, considers her work a rare opportunity to develop and bring to life big ideas with potentially significant social impact. As part of her compliance respon­sibilities, she must on occasion conduct due diligence of pertinent laws and regulations. For instance, in the case of the Nuclear Chal­lenges program, a grant may involve work with people in sanctioned countries, such as Iran and North Korea. It’s Emily’s job to ensure the grantees have secured the neces­sary license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to do the work for which they would receive funds — a necessary responsibility at times in tension with the desire of program staff to move the grant along.

“It’s fantastic to help people make a difference in the world,” she says. “They’re doing great work, and I always want to be the green light and say, ‘OK, do it quicker, do it quicker!’ But it’s often my duty to be the yellow light. I strive to find a way to make the grant work in a way that protects the foundation while allowing the grantee to carry out its mission.”

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Emily obtained a master’s degree in human services management at Brandeis University before attending the Duke University School of Law.

As a Skadden Fellow, she worked as a Legal Assistance Foundation staff attorney to expand child care options in Chicago and help low-income families obtain child care. The fellowship began soon after President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which emphasized employ­ment as a way out of poverty.

“Government benefits became a Catch-22 where women were denied aid because they were not working, but they were unable to work because they didn’t have child care,” Emily says. During her time at the Legal Assistance Foundation, Emily co-wrote a manual for child care providers outlining common liability and licensing issues for child care centers. It was a much-needed resource for such providers, some of who operated informal centers out of their homes and didn’t have the legal infrastructure necessary for lasting success.

Following her fellowship, Emily spent two years in private practice and then seven years at Harpo Productions, the company that ran The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, ultimately serving as interim general counsel. It was there that Emily realized how much she enjoyed in-house counsel work at foundations.

“It was kind of the perfect fit for me,” she says. “The work that charitable foundations do is highly regulated — Oprah Winfrey had a couple of different kinds of nonprofits, and different rules applied to each. I had to figure out what those rules were and how we could work with them. I felt like I was coming into work and solving a puzzle every day.”

In 2012, she joined the MacArthur Foundation. Emily especially enjoys the opportunity to again work in an environment where she has the luxury of really knowing her client, the foundation.

“At MacArthur, I’m not providing advice from afar — I’m familiar with my organization’s culture, and I know what works within that culture,” she says. “That gives me the context to identify issues proac­tively and provide thoughtful legal advice.”