Legal Rebel, Janelle Orsi, Transforms the Way We Think About Leadership

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About This Episode

In 2010, The American Bar Association named Janelle Orsi a Legal Rebel, for being an attorney who is remaking the legal profession through the power of innovation. We agree- Janelle is a rebel with a cause, transforming the way we think about leadership in this shifting economy. From participatory leadership to salary transparency, Janelle is leading by example to expand our definition of leadership. In this episode, Janelle shares examples of how her organization’s leadership practices create opportunities for every level of staff to be engaged in contributing to the organization.

About Janelle Orsi

Janelle Orsi is a lawyer, advocate, writer, and cartoonist focused on cooperatives, the sharing economy, land trusts, shared housing, local currencies, and rebuilding the commons.She is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), which facilitates the growth of more sustainable and localized economies through education, research, and advocacy. Janelle has also worked in private law practice at the Law Office of Janelle Orsi, focusing on sharing economy law since 2008. Janelle is the author of Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy: Helping People Build Cooperatives, Social Enterprise, and Local Sustainable Economies (ABA Books 2012), and co-author of The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community (Nolo Press 2009), a practical and legal guide to cooperating and sharing resources of all kinds.

Janelle’s cartoons include Awkward Conversations with BabiesThe Next Sharing EconomyEconomy SandwichShare SprayThe Beatles EconomyThe Legal Roots of ResilienceHousing for an Economically Sustainable FutureTransactional Law Practice for a Sharing EconomyGovernance is Life, and Citylicious.

Janelle is an advocate for a more open, inclusive, and accessible legal profession, and you can see her 10-minutepresentation on transforming the legal profession here. Janelle supervises two legal apprentices — co-workers who are becoming lawyers without going to law school. Janelle and her apprentices are blogging about the process at

In 2014, Janelle was selected to be an Ashoka Fellow, joining a robust cohort of social entrepreneurs who are recognized to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.  In 2010, Janelle was profiled by the American Bar Association as a Legal Rebel, an attorney who is “remaking the legal profession through the power of innovation.” In 2012, Janelle was one of 100 people listed on The (En)Rich List, which names individuals “whose contributions enrich paths to sustainable futures.”

In her words…

“I’ve come to realize, if we cultivate the right conditions, we can end up with communities and organizations where, a lot of people, or even all the people, feel that they have power and agency to just shape the world around them.” “I have a lot of hope and optimism for what I think we can do in this world. I think a lot of my role as a leader has just been to help impart that same enthusiasm. I do that. I really hone my skills as a communicator and I do a lot of speaking, I draw a lot of cartoons, I do a lot of writing in ways that I hope inspire other people. What ends up happening is that when other people are inspired, they’re highly intrinsically motivated to get involved. That’s my form of leadership, it’s spurring a lot of voluntary and intrinsically motivated participation in this work as opposed to coercive. I almost never want somebody to do something if they don’t feel intrinsically motivated to do it. For me, my style is to create the vision and communicate it in a way that people are going to want to and feel really driven to get involved in.” “I think we need to start young and just get everybody used to having more power in agency. I think most people walk around their cities or their neighborhoods and they watch things happen. They see, ‘Oh, that building got bought up by a big developer,’ or, ‘That building’s being torn down.’ They watch things happen and it just sort of washes over us, but we don’t always necessarily feel like we have the power or opportunity to change things or shape the world around us. To the extent that we can start practicing that in small ways and creating opportunities for people everywhere to practicing that in small ways, it’ll, I think, ultimately lead to people doing it in bigger ways and having a bigger impact.” “Sometimes I hear people say, ‘there are too many nonprofits,’ or ‘there’s too much redundancy.’ You know, we don’t need more nonprofits, but in a way, I think that we do, because every organization or every program within an organization is a space in which people are able to have a lot of agency and power and to take things on and to achieve a lot. And the degree of social change that we need, if we really are gonna make it through this next 10 years, we have the UN predicting that 2030 is the year in which basically climate change is gonna be irreversible. These are huge problems to take on and of course, the inequality’s been getting worse. Racism’s been getting worse. We’re on a trajectory where things are getting worse, and so to really turn things around, it’s gonna take a lot. A lot of people really focusing on making that change.” “I think the nonprofit sector will grow and that it should grow and that there should be a diversity of organizations working in the same sector. A lot of people say, ‘don’t just duplicate efforts’. But I think we should duplicate efforts. We need a lot of people doing the same kind of work, but doing it in their unique communities, in their unique ways, trying innovative things. And so I think a plurality and diversity and multiplicity of nonprofits emerging in coming years I think will be important. And I think the highly participatory leadership structure is gonna be really critical to that in order to create that leaderful society.” “I just think the passion and the dedication and the intrinsic motivation of nonprofit workers is perhaps the most valuable resource that we have for social change. That it’s the workers themselves and the drive and the motivation that we bring. That’s what’s really going to make change. And then in order to tap into that drive and into that motivation, we have to be thinking about our organizational structures and our organizational culture. So it could really come down to that. Maybe this is my way of saying that nonprofits that aren’t really thinking deeply about their structure and their culture right now are missing an opportunity to tap into that incredibly valuable resource.” 

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • What is shareable leadership?
  • Why do you think it is beneficial in the nonprofit sector?
  • What issues or opportunities do you see in traditional structures of leadership?
  • Cooperatives and shared economy models are seeing a surge in popularity. In many ways, cooperatives, in particular, are creating new economic opportunities for people who may have been previously counted out. How do we invest in those leaders and groups to prepare them as their organizations grow?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • What has been the overall response to the concept of shareable leadership?
  • Are there specific conditions under which the model will thrive or fail?
  • What response does “shareable leadership” get from funders? Have they embraced the concept?
  • Our current political climate has birthed leaders that haven’t followed the typical trajectory but felt the need to lead in order to create something better. Do you have any predictions about leadership structures and what we may see in the next 5 or 10 years?

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