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Think Small: Make a Big Impact

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Think Small: Make a Big Impact

Small businesses are the foundation of our economy, accounting for up to 80% of net new jobs over the last decade and employing half of all private sector workers, according to the Small Business Administration. But starting a business is not easy, especially for lower income individuals struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate. Without an understanding of the relevant laws or the resources to access legal assistance, many potentially successful projects fail.

The City Bar Justice Center launched the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project in 2003 to provide low to mid-income micro-entrepreneurs with the legal services necessary to get their businesses started off on as sound a footing as possible. Volunteer attorneys guide clients through such matters as incorporation and tax issues, commercial lease negotiations, copyrights, trademarks and patents, and license and permit applications. Volunteer attorneys also offer presentations and legal clinics at community-based organizations on issues of concern to micro-entrepreneurs.

To date, the Project has partnered with more than 30 law firms and 15 community-based organizations to assist more than 4,000 clients through the provision of brief services, direct representation, legal clinics and community presentations. Since its inception, the Project has been directed by attorney Akira Arroyo. "It's a wonderful opportunity for business-minded lawyers to give back to the community, and many of our volunteers tell me how rewarding it is to help a micro-entrepreneur," said Arroyo.

A Unique Volunteer Opportunity

The Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project offers a unique opportunity for transactional attorneys to work on pro bono cases that are more in line with their practice area than traditional pro bono litigation work. The Project also provides training for attorneys who are new to transactional work, as well as access to mentors and other attorneys experienced in the field. As such, the Project presents an excellent opportunity for both attorneys at large corporate firms who may not have a great deal of time to become proficient in a new area of law and attorneys at smaller firms or solo practices who may be looking to expand upon their current experience.

Tips for Working with Small Business Owners

Based on five years of experience, the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project has come up with the following tips for working with small businesses.

  • Work closely with the referring organization to understand your clients and how you can help them. The Justice Center will work as a facilitator between you and the client, making sure that the lines of communication are open, assisting if any issues arise and providing additional resources or mentors if needed.
  • Think small for your client. While many micro-entrepreneurs may dream big, they need pro bono counsel to help them focus on the minute details of their small businesses. The primary need for most micro-entrepreneurs is for assistance in realizing their short-term goals, such as selecting the best corporate structure for their current situation, protecting their intellectual property rights and making sure they have the necessary licenses to get their business up and running.
  • Think small for yourself. You may want to get your feet wet by participating in one of the Project's more discrete pro bono activities, such as a community-based presentation or legal clinic. This provides the opportunity to meet and interact in person with a group of varied micro-entrepreneurs, and can even spark an interest in you to work with a micro-entrepreneur to provide direct, ongoing representation.
    • Presentations. Presentations are a great way to get involved with both clients and other attorneys. Materials are available for standard topics, and volunteers are generally required to make a time commitment of only two to three hours.
    • Clinics. Clinics offer a team of interested attorneys the opportunity to provide brief counseling and limited assistance and guidance. Attorneys can assist a significant number of micro-entrepreneurs within a relatively short period of time, usually 30 minutes per client. Your legal team may even be able to "sponsor" a site and provide clinics on a regular basis (i.e. quarterly or monthly).
  • Work in teams. Attorneys may prefer to work with colleagues, as it allows for different opinions, varied expertise and a shared workload. Clients will also benefit from working with a team of attorneys, as there will always be someone available to address their concerns.

If interested in becoming involved with the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, please contact Marissa Seko at 212.382.6633 or mseko@nycbar.org.

Examples of Services Provided by Attorneys for the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project

  • Formation of a limited liability company for a steel die manufacturing enterprise, owned and operated by an immigrant entrepreneur.
  • Formation of an S-corporation and negotiation of a commercial lease for a beauty salon opened in Brooklyn by a female immigrant entrepreneur.
  • Formation of a limited liability company for a restaurant in Brooklyn.
  • Application for a patent for a handheld juicer reviewed and submitted on behalf of a disabled woman living on a fixed income in Harlem.
  • Protection of a trade name and trademark for a t-shirt designer in Queens.
  • Formation of a limited liability company and negotiation of a sales contract for a small Mexican restaurant opened in Queens.

"We are two people with modest incomes, and the patent and incorporation process would have been nearly impossible without pro bono help. Everyone involved has been extremely supportive, reliable and accessible. Most importantly, despite our pro bono status, we have never been treated as though we were secondary to a paying client." — NELP clients

This article originally appeared in the City Bar's monthly newsletter, 44th Street Notes, in November, 2008.