Meet a Mexican Lawyer Advocating for Nonprofits (and New HIP Board Member!)

By Katherine Mancera

Julio Copo Terrés grew up going to Catholic school, and one of the teachings he learned—the importance of service to community—has stuck with him ever since.

That’s one of the reasons he recently joined HIP’s board, and why he dedicates much of his professional life as a lawyer advocating for law firms to provide pro-bono services to the Mexican nonprofits tackling the country’s most challenging social problems.

Copo is an associate at the Mexican law firm Basham, Ringe y Correa, S.C., as well as the director of the Basham Foundation, a nonprofit that provides pro-bono legal services to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs and advances a pro-bono culture among Latin American firms and companies.

A few weeks ago, we interviewed Copo by Skype to get to know him and his quest for social impact. Here’s what we found out.

(Note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

You’re a big advocate of pro-bono work for nonprofits in Mexico. Why?

Growing up in a school run by missionaries, I learned about living religion not through dogma but by looking at how things are on the ground. Service was one of their big teachings—that was embedded in me since I was small.

After university I started working for an NGO called Techo in Mexico, first as a volunteer, then as legal counsel, and finally as implementer/general manager. Techo is a youth-led nonprofit that has 19 offices all over Latin America. It started as a housing project where university students would go to communities in need and build very simple houses. Today it’s about the students working hand-in-hand with the community members… it helps put the communities on the map, and it’s an eye opener for the students, showing how privileged their life is and encouraging them to use that privilege to multiply opportunities. It also empowers people in the community to be part of their own solutions.

What Techo taught me is that nonprofits are great, but that we’re lacking a lot of social responsibility individually. We can’t expect NGOs to be responsible for the world’s problems. We need socially responsible lawyers, architects, etc. I decided I wanted to continue practicing law but to do something else to help create opportunities for other Mexicans.

What gets you excited about your work?

As a lawyer, it’s sometimes difficult to understand that what you’re doing behind your desk has an impact—that by drafting articles of incorporation for an NGO, you’re permitting the birth of an organization that will have a direct impact on a lot of people. What excites me as a lawyer is having that bigger picture. It’s about the tangible effects down the road.

I want our organizations [that we provide pro-bono services to] to feel that they have someone they can trust, an ally. Most of them are doing what they can with what they have. I want them to know that we believe in what they’re doing and demonstrating that trust by providing them with what we know best.

What are the rewards and challenges of your work?

The rewards: getting to know the final beneficiaries [of my pro-bono work]; getting to know their stories and how what we did impacts their everyday lives. There’s no bigger reward than seeing how what you did developed into something else.

The challenges: where should I start? For lawyers, it’s sometimes difficult to get people to understand the idea of committing to generosity. We’re used to billing… we get lost looking at the trees and don’t see the forest. We need to convince lawyers that this [pro-bono work] is something worthwhile and that it has a meaningful impact.

Another challenge is that there are a lot of good intentions in creating nonprofits, but due to lack of knowledge of legal and accounting processes some don’t survive longer than the individual who created them because they never institutionalized the organization or created a solid structure that could be passed on through generations of management. So we try to help them institutionalize and transmit the importance of making sure the organization will prevail even after [the funder is no longer leading it].

If you had a magic wand, what would you change and why?

If I had a magic wand, I would make everyone understand that we’re responsible for the world we’re living in. We’re responsible for the situations of our countries, and we can actively work to make our circumstances better. I would get rid of apathy… everyone is responsible for making our world a little better.

Tell me about your favorite sport or a favorite movie.

I’ve been doing CrossFit for almost a year now. I’ve never been a sporty kind of guy, but I realized I’m getting a little older, and I want to explore other things that I never had an interest in doing. It’s terribly painful waking up every morning at 5:40 am to get to my 6:00 am class… But it’s very rewarding, seeing yourself change little by little. There’s also a community around the sport of very differently-minded people all together doing the same activity. Through CrossFit I’ve further developed [qualities] I didn’t have in terms of working toward something every day, and being persistent.

What excites you about being on HIP’s Board?

So many things! It’s a diverse board with people from all over Latin America with so much knowledge and experience from different sectors. I can talk a lot about Mexico and a bit about Panama, but being on a board with people telling me about Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc., and what the struggles are in those countries—seeing those people creating participation within Hispanic communities—it’s very empowering and humbling at the same time. I’m young, and the chance to sit at the table with so many active, engaged minds that are actively doing something for their communities is inspiring.

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