by Carley Milligan
Her father was a head trustee and deacon at the small rural church in Virginia they attended and her mother was her Sunday School teacher. Cole grew up learning how a church operated from a Christian standpoint, but said like many people she did not know church law was an area of legal practice that existed.
“I came across a case that came before that court of appeals in which there was a national denomination and a local church at odds with each other. That was the first time I realized that churches even go to court or that there was a need for legal services for churches,” she said. “It just resonated with me, it felt like a community I was very familiar with and needs that I cared about.”
Cole founded her own practice, the Law Offices of Erika E. Cole LLC, in 2005 and branded herself as the “Church Attorney.” In July, Cole moved to Baltimore’s Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, which launched a church and faith-based practice for Cole and the two attorneys who came with her in the transition — counsel Candie Deming and associate counsel Maame Amponsah.
I chatted with Cole to learn more about church law and why she joined Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.
What are some examples of cases you might assist a church on?
It has changed over the years, but things like church planting — we give legal advice and help organizations that plant churches throughout the country and throughout the world. We help them review and revise their governing documents and help them draft policies and procedures to reflect today’s legal environment. Preparing tax exempt applications before the IRS, or addressing tax issues before the IRS. We have literally developed a system called the church attorney legal audit system that helps churches no matter where they are in the process of compliance. We help move them forward to be more compliant on the state and federal level. Also, church contracts, buying or selling church property, church construction, loans and church facility issues.
A lot of those legal services sound similar to what corporations or nonprofits deal with. What makes churches different?
While there are business components to churches, a church is not the same as a business or even a general nonprofit. Their leadership structure is different, their hierarchy is different, the language is different, their operations are different and their goals are generally different. It really is its own specific world and I think one of the reasons why pastors and church leaders resonate with the work that I do is because I really can speak their language and I’m a part of their community. They recognize that when I speak to an issue, it’s from a place of experience and not just generic law practice.
Why did you want to join Whiteford, Taylor & Preston?
I would put what we do in two categories. There’s specific governance issues and then there is the side of general legal assistance or you could even call it general corporate representation. That could include things like, unfortunately, litigation matters and that’s one of the big reasons why I decided to come together and combine with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston because they provide a broader platform to help us serve churches in the areas where they need our help.
What do you mean by a “broader platform?”
For example, there are many churches that have apps and actually through the app you can donate to the church. We have attorneys here who specifically focus on cybersecurity. That’s not something that I would have been able to do and I’m still not able to do it, but the firm has attorneys that have broader areas of specialization that I can connect with my church clients. So now, I can help my church client that needs advice on how to ensure that the donations from contributors are secure.
In the course of a year, you said your practice works with over 200 churches. Do you expect to see that number grow at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston?
Absolutely. I’m convinced of that for a number of reasons. One, because we are able to connect the needs of our clients to attorneys here as I described with the cyber security example. I would say if you talk about just how many churches we have on our books that may not have an issue this month, but maybe two months from now would, we are talking well over 1,000. I am very humbled by that. This is a practice that I have built over the course of almost 20 years and I have clients that have worked with me from the very beginning who are still with me now. I think that says a lot about how they trust me with something that is deeper than just legal work. For them it’s a calling and for me it is too.
How much do you charge for your services, and do you ever do pro bono work?
Whiteford, Taylor, Preston contributes significantly to pro bono services, as do I, especially in communities in which our clients are based. As for what I charge for services, they vary by client need; however, we do offer a number of flat fee arrangements and reduced rates, where possible. The costs to a client is case-by-case in the sense that no two client needs are the same, and no two clients are the same. As such, we are committed to closely examining each client’s need and providing the service that provides the needed solution. We work with clients on alternative fee arrangements if that is something they are interested in exploring. Examples would include retainer relationships, flat fees for specific services, and in certain circumstances, for example where an organization was just getting started, reduced rates. Our pro bono work is devoted to clients otherwise not be able to afford legal representation. The firm works with a wide range of nonprofit organizations and bar groups that identify individuals in need.