Washington Lawyer

The Pro Bono Effect: Transactional Lawyers Rising to the Challenge to Serve

From Washington Lawyer, September 2013

By Richard J. Marks

Ask people to think “pro bono work,” and many would picture a litigator standing before a judge fighting for her client’s home. It’s the traditional image, and in it we transactional lawyers are on the sidelines writing our annual check to a legal services group. It’s not because we don’t want to help; we sometimes just don’t know how. More and more, however, we are being called upon to assist nonprofit organizations and disadvantaged small businesses.

I remember as a young associate at a Baltimore law firm in 1994 wanting to find ways to help the community. I began working with a local nonprofit corporation to create guidelines for articles and bylaws, leading to more pro bono work. It was fulfilling to help community-based nonprofits because they serve as such a vital lifeline. When you help an organization, you help everyone whom the organization assists. Often it’s indirect, but it’s powerful.

This proved especially true in 2007 when the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program matched my firm, DLA Piper, with Bread for the City. The organization wanted to expand its Northwest Center to accommodate more clients, but the project would cost millions of dollars. Bread for the City had secured a grant covering half of the costs, but it needed help raising the remaining funds.

This is where my friend David Krohn, a finance partner at DLA Piper, stepped in. He led a team of attorneys from our finance and corporate practice groups to structure a financing package for Bread for the City using the New Market Tax Credits, a federal program designed to spur revitalization in low-income communities. After Bread for the City received the financing, the project broke ground in May 2009.

Thanks to David and his team’s efforts, Bread for the City was able to grow its medical practice from serving 2,500 patients annually to 6,000 patients, and to double the number of its patient visits to 18,000 per year. Its building also now houses a dental clinic that serves nearly 700 low-income patients each year.

Sadly, David passed away suddenly more than a year ago. He was a great lawyer who was widely admired. He helped conduct numerous transactions for his clients, but, on a fundamental level, that work pales in comparison to the gift he gave to this community through his work for Bread for the City.

What David showed is that we can all help. Like any other business, nonprofits have to comply with the D.C. rules for businesses operating in the city. They must follow federal and local labor laws. They rent and buy real estate and create intellectual property that needs protection. They receive government grants and contracts and engage in activities requiring risk management advice.

Transactional attorneys have the skills to assist nonprofits with these endeavors, and in doing so, they can leave an important mark on the fabric of this city. Our pro bono efforts make it possible for these organizations to carry out critical services, such as helping children achieve their dreams of attending college, allowing senior citizens to remain in their homes, and reaching at-risk youth. One transactional lawyer’s time serving one local nonprofit organization can benefit hundreds, if not thousands, of District residents.

The opportunities are out there. You just need to find them. Through its Community Economic Development (CED) Project, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program matches lawyers with nonprofits in need of legal representation. You can also prepare a bulletin on a new development in the law, or teach a class to nonprofit staff on corporate governance, insurance, or employment issues.

Disadvantaged small businesses also need our help. The CED Project hosts a monthly small business clinic, staffed by volunteers, where business owners meet with attorneys who can answer questions and provide information ranging from how to form a limited liability company to employer’s legal requirements. With our help, these owners are better equipped to successfully operate their businesses, strengthening the local economy and providing needed services to communities lacking basic amenities.

Giving our time to help a deserving nonprofit or small business always comes back two-fold. To this day, one of my most rewarding cases was a pro bono matter in 2002 in Louisiana. For years, activist organizations wanted to shut down the privately operated Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, regarded as one of the worst juvenile prisons in the nation because of its countless civil rights violations, deplorable conditions, and rampant violence and abuse. Voiding the agreement between the prison owners and the state was proving difficult. Since the facility was originally financed with bonds, as a bond attorney, I was asked to review the agreement. I was able to draft a report used by Mitch Landrieu, then a state representative, and community nonprofits to pressure the government to shut the prison down. We were successful. The Tallulah juvenile facility was later converted into an adult substance abuse treatment center. No one would have ever thought that bond lawyers could help shut down a corrupt juvenile prison, but we did. To me, that shows the power of a single transactional attorney to help an entire community. Imagine what we could do with the help of thousands of District attorneys in creating change in all the city’s neighborhoods.

Rick Marks is a business lawyer and partner at DLA Piper. He is the current chair of the D.C. Bar CED Project advisory board.