Letter From The President Of The New York City Bar Association

2011-10-04 00:00

To The Readers of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Ten Years of Helping Small Businesses

Akira Arroyo started working at the City Bar Justice Center, the New York City Bar's nonprofit, pro bono affiliate, on September 13, 2001. She had been hired to start on September 11th, to launch the Justice Center's Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP), to provide low-income entrepreneurs in New York City with the legal services necessary to get their businesses off the ground.

Instead, it was all hands on deck at the Justice Center in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Akira ran the Justice Center's 9/11 Small Business Initiative, which assisted the many small businesses displaced and otherwise impacted by 9/11.

By 2003, when many of the 9/11 cases were being resolved, NELP's focus shifted back to helping low-income entrepreneurs throughout the city. In the years since, NELP has provided assistance to over 10,000 clients in one of three ways: through legal clinics, where entrepreneurs receive one-on-one advice on their small business matters; through presentations in communities on legal topics of relevance to micro-entrepreneurs; and through direct representation, where clients are paired with a pro bono attorney for ongoing assistance.

There is no typical NELP client, except to the extent that it's usually a very small business, often where the business owner is the only employee. NELP clients come from all walks of life. Some are recent immigrants, like the man who left a low-wage factory job to start his own shop in the garment district in order to put his kids through college.

Other clients had careers and retired only to find that they were not able to make it on a fixed income. Some are friends who couldn't find work and decided to pool their resources to make a go of their dreams in these difficult economic times.

NELP is a perfect fit for the Justice Center's model of recruiting and supervising pro bono lawyers and matching them with clients, for a couple of reasons. First, the volunteer lawyers don't necessarily have to learn a completely new area of the law. They are already transactional or corporate practitioners, making this type of work easier to take on than work in more specialized or litigation-based areas. NELP work typically involves helping the client determine the best structure for her business, and may involve assistance with contract drafting and review, commercial lease negotiations and intellectual property matters, such as copyrights, trademarks and, in some instances, patent applications.

Additionally, NELP has lent itself particularly well to partnerships between law firms and corporate legal departments. Many of the Justice Center's clinics have been co-sponsored by firms and in-house legal departments. Last year, NELP held 30 clinics serving some 450 clients, and we estimate that nearly one-third were staffed through these types of partnerships. The firms often pick up pro bono cases from the entrepreneurs seen at the clinic, and in some instances the firm and in-house counsel work together to provide pro bono representation.

There's something inherently admirable about someone starting up a small business, especially when it's intended to help others based on a client's own life experience. A great example is the breast cancer survivor who invented a type of post-surgical apparel. NELP volunteer lawyers helped her obtain a patent for her invention, and are continuing to advise her as she sets up her online shop.

Another example hearkens back to those days after 9/11, when a client with a consulting business in Lower Manhattan was unable to enter her apartment or office and lost many of her client files, thus losing much of her business and income. At the time, volunteer attorneys were able to help her negotiate with her landlord and creditors for more favorable terms. Recently, this same entrepreneur has come back to NELP for assistance with her latest business venture, which involves disaster planning for small businesses.


Samuel W. Seymour