Editor: Would each of you tell us something about your background and experience?
León: Prior to joining St. Nicholas, I was a program officer at the Department of Youth Services of the City of New York, and prior to that I was in graduate school at the New School for Social Research. I have been at St. Nicholas for nine years.
Simms: I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1977 and went to work for Shearman & Sterling. I joined Weil Gotshal in 1985. I am a partner in the corporate department, with a particular expertise in banking and finance law.
Editor: The St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation was established 30 years ago. What is the origin of this organization?
León: A fire in 1975 displaced some 18 families in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That event served to bring together a group of people - residents, business people, community leaders - concerned about poor services and the deterioration of the community and reversing this trend.
Editor: And its mission?
León: The mission of St. Nicholas NPC is to revitalize and sustain the Williamsburg and Greenpoint community to the benefit of low and moderate income residents. The Williamsburg-Greenpoint area of Brooklyn consists of a very diverse group of people: 60% are Italian-Americans, 30% Hispanics and 10% African Americans. There is also a small but growing Asian population. St. Nicholas is about maintaining the social fabric and enhancing the quality of life for its residents.
Editor: Marsha, for background, would you tell us something about pro bono activities at Weil Gotshal?
Simms: Weil Gotshal has always had a commitment to pro bono beyond the requirements of the ABA and other professional organizations. Everyone is encouraged to contribute 50 hours per year in this area, and as a result the projects that the firm undertakes are quite varied. The St. Nicholas NPC project, as José indicates, is a somewhat unusual pro bono activity. We carry on work for the Central Park Conservancy, and we have represented the Museum of Jewish Heritage since it was founded. We have a number of lawyers who have taken on a variety of projects for public service organizations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is one of our pro bono clients. If someone has a project that he or she thinks worthy of pursuing - and whether it is a traditional pro bono project or breaks new ground - the firm's pro bono committee is going to make a real effort to take that project on and support it. This interest extends beyond our lawyers, to support staff and paralegals, and is also beginning to appear at our offices overseas. The pro bono culture of the firm is making itself felt far beyond the city in which it had its start.
Editor: The firm has an enviable reputation for its civic and pro bono undertakings. This did not just happen.
Simms: No. Weil Gotshal was founded by a group of people who were committed to serving their community through pro bono and philanthropic activities. Public service has been a core value of the firm for all of the 19 years I have been here, and I am certain it goes back to the founding of the firm more than 70 years ago. Jesse Wolf, who joined the firm a few years after it was founded in 1931, remembers that the founders made a point of encouraging lawyers to do pro bono work. That encouragement was amplified when he was a member of the management committee, and it continues to this day.
Editor: What drew you to the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhood?
Simms: About a year ago the firm was matched with the St. Nicholas NPC by the Lawyers Alliance for New York, another community service organization which we have long supported. This particular setting is very interesting and, I think, very important. In all of our cities a great deal of very small scale economic development is underway all the time. These small enterprises have a need for legal advice, but very few of them can afford to get it. Almost all of the pro bono services that law firms provide are for the indigent or for non-profit organizations, particularly those serving the poor. Here we have a group of people who are working, who wish to revitalize their community and who have not had access to pro bono services in the past. In addition to meeting a vital need, the St Nicholas project also enabled us to offer our corporate lawyers an opportunity to take on a number of different pro bono projects. In my experience, litigators are always in demand in the pro bono arena. Finding suitable projects for corporate lawyers can be something of a challenge.
León: There is a great need in the greater North Brooklyn community for the kind of expertise that firms like Weil Gotshal can provide. We have many entrepreneurs and new small-business owners eager to start and grow their business in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. With help from the Empire State Development Corporation, St. Nicks is able to train entrepreneurs in the basics of opening and operating a business through its 60-hour Entrepreneurship Program. We then match our clients with partners such as Weil Gotshal to provide specific technical assistance in areas such as incorporating their business, reviewing leases and contracts, understanding loan documents and other specific subject areas. The assistance provided by Weil Gotshal is invaluable and strengthens our work in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint community.
Editor: Can you tell us about some of the projects the firm has taken on for St. Nicholas?
Simms: We have a wide range of projects underway at the moment. There is a coffee shop/bookstore called The Archive that is up and running, which has involved negotiating a lease and arranging for bank financing, among other things. We have incorporated an enterprise called Healthy Endings that provides spa services, and at the moment we are addressing some health care issues for it. Since most of these businesses are start-up operations, the owners are working day jobs on a full-time basis and trying to get their enterprises launched part-time. That means that these projects are not accomplished very quickly - which is the way things really work in the world - and I think that is a good lesson for our lawyers to learn. In addition, it gives them a chance to see these projects evolve over a long period of time.
There are times when we must move quickly, of course. Just before Memorial Day weekend I received a call requesting help for two women trying to open a restaurant. I was able to find two lawyers willing to help over the weekend and, as a result, they have formed an LLC, found a location and, just recently, signed a lease. Another project involved a start-up publication with a focus on African-American activities in the community. After bringing out their first issue, the two partners had a falling out, and nothing has been published since. That, too, is a valuable "real world" experience for our associates, particularly when they contemplate drafting conflict resolution provisions in the incorporation and partnership documents of these enterprises.
Editor: There must be a critical mass to all of this. How has this evolved over the past few years?
León: For some time after September 11, it was a struggle to help and encourage entrepreneurs to start and grow their business. The sluggish economy and fears of living in New York City forced many potential business owners, as well as residents, to question the need and desire to live in New York. But as New Yorkers, we quickly bounced back and saw opportunities before us. In the past two years, we have seen a flurry of new businesses and entrepreneurs that have created a new home in North Brooklyn and we are helping to revitalize the community. We now find ourselves busy meeting with entrepreneurs, reviewing their plans and helping out with their grand openings. We are greatly encouraged by these developments and hope it will continue for some time.
Editor: It appears that a considerable variety of projects are coming to the firm from St. Nicholas. Do you have any problem staffing them?
Simms: Absolutely not. Between offering our people some very interesting projects and providing them with a very supportive framework within which to work, we have had no problem in finding people to take on this work.
Editor: What kind of impact is this work having on the community?
León: We think it is having a good and dramatic impact. Throughout North Brooklyn and, in particular, near the borders of the East Williamsburg industrial park and in the popular Northside, a wide range of cafe/bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, and specialty shops have been established in the past two years. These new businesses are now growing and are having a larger impact in the North Brooklyn community. With the growth and development you also get some unintended consequences and problems as well. Economic revitalization has led to an increase in property values, which has resulted in the displacement of the elderly and low-income families in the community. We are working with residents and community leaders on a community-wide plan that attempts to preserve a balance and an affordable quality of life for Williamsburg-Greenpoint residents.
Editor: Weil Gotshal's reputation for pro bono work must be a significant plus in recruiting law graduates. How would you package a program like the St. Nicholas project in talking about the firm to young people?
Simms: When we are engaged in recruiting, we have our young associates talk about their pro bono projects. We try to convey the real substance of the program through the commitment and enthusiasm of the people who are here. We make sure that the young lawyers who are considering the firm are aware of the multitude of pro bono opportunities that are available, of the externships we support, and of a firm culture that encourages them to develop their own projects wherever possible. We have a program for summer associates which takes them through a two or three week rotation with some of the public service organizations we serve. We find that our pro bono activities constitute a very valuable recruiting tool for law students and recent law graduates.
Editor: What is next in the partnership between Weil Gotshal and St. Nicholas?
León: We are very pleased and appreciative of the services that the firm has provided to entrepreneurs in our community. We are now attempting to attract a greater number of new businesses to the community and look forward to working closely with Weil Gotshal in helping us accomplish this goal.
Simms: The relationship is working very well. We have built up some real momentum, and there is considerable buzz among our young associates about the things they are doing for St. Nicholas. As I indicated, we have no problem staffing these projects. The real problem, I think, is going to be keeping track of who is doing what for the organization. It is a very nice place for Weil Gotshal to be.
Published August 1, 2004.