Calling All Business Lawyers for Pro Bono Duty
By Tom Williamson
Conventional wisdom tells us that pro bono legal work is primarily the domain of quixotic litigators who deploy their trial skills on behalf of the needy or disadvantaged people, who would otherwise not be able to afford legal counsel. That is decidedly not the message that emanates from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Community Economic Development (CED) Project.
Founded in 1999, the CED Project has focused on developing a variety of opportunities for business and transactional lawyers to assist community–based nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and tenant associations in the District of Columbia. In carrying out its mission, the CED Project has linked up nonprofit organizations and small businesses with hundreds of talented and experienced business lawyers at a number of D.C.’s best law firms.
The pro bono litigator is typically called into action in a situation where the client has already been victimized. Clients’ problems could range from unlawful discrimination to unjust eviction to unfair denial of vitally needed government services or financial assistance. By contrast, the CED Project is looking to connect the underserved population by taking the initiative to achieve positive change.
Business lawyers often become the behind-the-scenes architects and coordinators of creative approaches to achieving their clients’ goals. For example, Community of Hope is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the health and quality of life of low-income individuals in the District by providing health care, housing with supportive services, educational opportunities, and spiritual support. To increase its services, Community of Hope wanted to construct a new 50,000–square–foot facility in Ward 8.
When Community of Hope began work on the facility, the organization needed legal assistance with the purchase and development of the property. The CED Project matched Community of Hope with Patton Boggs LLP, which stepped up to the challenge and has since been working closely with the nonprofit to help advance its ambitious goals.
The business planning skills of the firm’s corporate lawyers are transferable to meet the needs of Community of Hope. Once completed, the nonprofit’s new Health and Resource Center will house 18 patient examining rooms, a laboratory, procedure rooms, and a separate dental floor, which will include 11 dental chairs for cleaning, x–rays, fillings, and dentures. This new facility is expected to accommodate 22,000 medical visits, 15,000 dental visits, and 3,500 behavioral health visits annually.
Another inspiring example of the CED Project at work is Street Sense, a biweekly newspaper that provides commentary on the homeless experience in the District. The publication offers jobs for the homeless and formerly homeless as writers and vendors. With a growing presence of over 100 vendors on neighborhood street corners, Street Sense sought assistance in managing potential liabilities. The CED Project matched the publication with experienced corporate counsel at Hunton & Williams LLP.
As part of its continuing evolution, the CED Project launched its Small Business Initiative in the fall of 2006. The operating premise is that low–income neighborhoods need small businesses, including startup small businesses, to invest in their communities to provide services and expand employment opportunities. This initiative is critical because startup small businesses create three million jobs in the United States each year. In addition to matching local businesses directly with pro bono counsel, the Small Business Initiative also holds Small Business Brief Advice Legal Clinics, where the CED Project partners with business counselors who provide technical assistance to local business owners. Attorneys donate their time at these walk-in clinics on a short–term basis. Relatively brief advice is given, but the clinics, held 11 times a year, give small business owners the opportunity to consult with an attorney one on one.
The CED Project also has drawn on the expertise of business lawyers to create educational materials for nonprofit organizations and small businesses. Zoning designations and the zoning approval process are priority areas of concern for small businesses and nonprofit entities. In 2010, with help from Holland & Knight LLP, the CED Project published its “Guide to Zoning in the District of Columbia” to communicate information about the approval process for construction, as well as strategies for navigating the complexities of obtaining exceptions to the zoning laws. The CED Project also disseminates “legal alerts” in the same fashion that law firms publish “recent development” updates for commercial clients. The CED Project has worked with several law firms to provide legal alerts for nonprofit organizations on topics such as lobbying registration, non-cash donations, charitable solicitation rules, excess compensation, and codes of conduct.
The CED Project’s educational outreach also encompasses Webinars and seminars. In 2011 it offered Webinar series on risk management, intellectual property, and planned giving. In addition, the CED Project has partnered with Pfizer Inc. and DLA Piper LLP to recruit legal experts from across the country to present topics relevant to nonprofit organizations nationwide, such as contracts, fundraising and fee–generating activities, political activity, and workforce management. These presentations are broadcast from New York City to DLA Piper offices in over a dozen cities where nonprofit organizations are invited to attend, ask questions of the presenters in real time, and network with other nonprofit groups.
Pro bono opportunities abound for D.C. Bar members who are business or transactional lawyers. Your skills and your experience are in high demand. Please answer the call to action today.
Reach Tom Williamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.