Access to Justice

Lawyers Help Keep American Dream Alive Through Pro Bono Service

By Jack Londen

The American Dream is alive and well. At least, that is the experience of new entrepreneurs who turn a great idea into a thriving business. The Dream is not the exclusive property of high-tech, venture capital-funded Silicon Valley companies. Many people who have limited means and who come from backgrounds with few advantages or privileges have created successful businesses. They have created a new future for their own families and new jobs, products, and services for their communities. This takes hard work and a good idea. It also takes a lawyer.

You may have decided to become a lawyer with ideals of helping other people. You may wish to comply with the prevailing ethic and the practice of many law firms by spending at least 20 hours per year doing pro bono work. If you are a business lawyer, though, or a specialist in real estate, employment, or insurance transactions, you may have found that pro bono work opportunities in your field are rare compared to litigation pro bono matters that do not call on your particular skills. But such opportunities exist.

California has some of the best programs in the United States in which business lawyers open doors for aspiring entrepreneurs. Three of those programs—Bet Tzedek, Start Small Think Big, and Public Counsel, moderated by Judge Charles Crompton of San Francisco Superior Court—will present a California Lawyers Association self-study MCLE program via Zoom on July 11 at noon.

Earn MCLE credit while you learn ways to use your skills as a business counselor in pro bono work. With a limited commitment of time, you can keep the Dream alive for someone who wants to enter the economic mainstream and serve the community with new products and services.

Each of these programs has been helping small businesses for years. They focus on providing valuable help for clients and a satisfying experience for volunteer lawyers. The programs screen clients to ensure they have both a legal need and are ready to talk to a lawyer before the referral. Virtual sessions allow lawyers to work from their offices or remote locations. They also make sure that the clients have access to the technology, including document transmission, required for productive sessions. Subject matters of the legal advice can include a wide variety of topics:

  • Corporate risk assessment
  • Entity selection
  • Entity formation
  • Employment law
  • Corporate governance
  • Commercial leases
  • Lending agreements
  • Contracts
  • ADA compliance
  • CA marketing and advertising law compliance
  • Vending contracts

You can help people like Consuelo “Connie” Chaneco.

Connie Chaneco, pictured above, is an immigrant from the Philippines who has lived in Los Angeles since 1985. At 76 years old, she still works long hours to help her extended family. Connie was a licensed building contractor in her home country, who now solely works on project management. The pandemic crippled her income, and she lost the space where she lived and worked. Pro bono lawyers—working remotely over a series of video and conference calls—helped Connie apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. That money helped pay overhead expenses for her new workspace, and the two rounds of financing she received significantly stabilized her business. Connie wouldn’t have received the loan—which helped her business survive the COVID-19 crisis—without the assistance she received from Bet Tzedek and pro bono lawyers from Paul Hastings. Bet Tzedek lawyers have helped more than 500 small low and moderate-income entrepreneurs start and stay in business.

Helping BIPOC, LGBTQ+ clients, and others.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, many programs have made it a focus to assist BIPOC businesses and others from diverse communities. For example, Start Small Think Big maintains an online shopping page featuring its clients. The page features hundreds of listings including AAPI-owned, Latinx-owned, Black-owned, and LGBTQ+ small business products and services.

For example, pro bono lawyers working with Public Counsel advised Kika Keith, pictured above, on how her business, Gorilla Life Green Drink, could protect its intellectual property rights and how to take on investors. The family-owned business sells an alfalfa chlorophyll drink made from an old family recipe. It’s a great example of how lawyers can open doors for a small business ready to get a little bigger.

A small business needs more help than just from lawyers. Each program collaborates with other organizations to provide business counseling and other services, including financing sources.

With Start Small’s marketing assistance accompanying pro bono legal help, Wanda’s Cooking in Castro Valley, California, increased its revenue by 550% in 2020. Wanda Blake, pictured above, says, “I’m standing on a cloud. My Pepper Chowchow is number 12 on the list of Bon Appetit’s Quarantine Cooking Recipes. Thank you just doesn’t seem to be enough.”

Your work with any of these programs will impact economic justice for your clients, their families and employees, and their communities. If you would like to learn more, you can attend the free live presentation by Zoom, which will offer 1.0 hour of self-study MCLE credit, on July 11 from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm by registering here. After the live presentation, the recording will be made available for participatory MCLE credit at cost in CLA’s online course catalog.

Jack Londen is the Executive Director of the California Access to Justice Commission, which he helped found in 1996 and chaired in 1999-2000. He is also a partner in Morrison & Foerster LLP in San Francisco and a member of CLA.

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