COVID-19 SMALL BUSINESS REMOTE LEGAL CLINIC
Story by Cynthia Maduka, Communications Intern (Summer 2020)
Born out of a Facebook group founded in 2016, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation (L4GG) quickly grew into an organization of 125,000 lawyers coming together to promote good government and principles like equality, citizen participation, and accountability. Today they exist as a successful nonprofit whose unique model and use of technology allows them to provide pro bono legal assistance through various programs and nationwide legal clinics, with the aim of supporting the urgent needs and rights of individuals and organizations. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, one focus of the organization has been helping small businesses navigate these difficult times.
Small businesses play a crucial role in fueling economic growth in the United States. According to research done by the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, between 1998 to 2014, they made up 44% of economic activity, making them an essential part of the economy. However, due to the wide range of shutdowns, safety mandates and public precautions put in place during the pandemic, small businesses have suffered disproportionately compared to medium and large businesses. The harm extends beyond their bottom line and has resulted in furloughed and laid off staff across the country. Things may not get better anytime soon- in fact, a Local Economic Impact Report released by Yelp in June revealed that the number of permanent closures had increased from 41% to 55% since March 1st. The drastic switch from businesses being temporarily to permanently closed was most pronounced amongst retail stores, restaurants, and fitness businesses.
As the small businesses who remain are struggling to get back on their feet, most are left with great uncertainty on where to begin this difficult process. Seeing the unparalleled need for assistance, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation created a COVID-19 Small Business Legal Clinic to help those looking to navigate their way through these unprecedented times. After contacting large law firms across the country who then promoted the volunteer opportunity to their attorneys, the response was astounding. More than 1,500 pro bono lawyers volunteered across the designated states.
“We’re trying to help very small businesses and non-profit organizations who have been harmed as a result of the pandemic, and the government’s handling of the pandemic,” said Traci Feit Love, Founder and Executive Director of Lawyers for Good Government Foundation.
What’s more impressive is that they have already completed 1,200 legal consultations with small businesses and nonprofits. Currently they have functioning COVID-19 legal clinics running on a state-wide or city-wide level in the following states: New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, South Carolina, and Idaho.
The process of matching the most appropriate lawyer with the business in need of assistance is one of the many things a former client of the COVID-19 Legal Clinic, Spencer Swain, co-founder of Families First appreciated.
“The lawyer I was matched with had a similar background as me and knew the language I was speaking - which for me, made all the difference in the world,” said Swain. "What could have been several days of conversations, occurred in an hour because he went above and beyond the call by doing prior homework. I was impressed. From the initial meeting to the follow up, they were putting our issues first.”
According to Swain, he needed clarification on whether he was able to supplement some funding with Paycheck Protection Program funding which was why he found it important to seek higher legal advice.
“I think any small business during this time could benefit from getting pro bono work, when they do things like match you up correctly and provide lawyers that genuinely care about your concerns,” said Swain.
Like many other small businesses, his organization was forced to close during the government mandated shutdowns which impacted the parents and children of the staff, and the families they serve. Founded in 2014, Families First is devoted to providing a center where children from underserved, disadvantaged, and immigrant backgrounds are able to learn in a safe and healthy environment. According to their website, they are the “first and only bilingual preschool in Cabarrus, North Carolina.”
Despite having their facilities closed, Families First was still able to check in on their families during the lockdown. Currently, Families First is back up and running and continuing their mission.
According to Love, prior to meeting with a lawyer, clients must fill out an intake form with basic information about their small business and the questions they have. From there, one of the program coordinators in their area will determine if they meet the qualifications for the legal clinic. Based on the intake form, the client is then matched with a lawyer that is suited to address their needs. After the matching process, an hour-long virtual consultation is then scheduled during which the lawyer works through the responses with the client.
To continue providing exceptional services, clients are able to participate in a post-consultation feedback survey that asks them to rate their experience on a scale of 1-10. They are asked how helpful the consultation was, how likely they are to recommend the clinic to another small business owner, and whether they have other feedback to share about their overall experience. According to Love, the feedback for the legal clinic has been very positive.
“Out of the 1,200 consultations that have been completed, 350 of those clients have participated in the feedback survey,” said Love. “Overall, we have an average score of 9.2 for helpfulness and average score of 9.3 out of 10 for how likely they would be to promote the clinic to another business owner. It's been really meaningful to see that the clinic is really helping small businesses during this time.”
Despite the successes of the COVID-19 legal clinics and the meaningful contributions they’ve made to the communities who need assistance the most, the journey of getting the program off the ground was far from easy. Although they are looking to expand their partners, the Argosy Foundation is currently their only funder for this specific project.
“One of the initial challenges we faced starting the legal clinic was funding; the Argosy Foundation really stepped up with that,” said Love. “Funding was a big obstacle for the COVID-19 Legal Clinic because we had to come up with an idea for this program and get it off the ground in a matter of weeks. No one budgeted for the pandemic, so we had to figure out not only the logistics of the program but also how we would pay for it.”
“I think any small business during this time could benefit from getting pro bono work, when they do things like match you up correctly and provide lawyers that genuinely care about your concerns."
Despite this initial difficulty, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation has continued to make an immense difference in the lives of those who otherwise would not have been able to afford legal services. What makes them unique is their ability to quickly respond to a crisis and form legal clinics in a matter of weeks.
“The ability to identify and address urgent societal matters very quickly is something that we think makes us very unique,” said Love.
Another new L4GG project this year makes that clear. 2020 was not just the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic, but also the year that racial injustices were met with a revolutionary reckoning. Their latest project, Lawyers for Racial Justice (LRJ), launched late spring and aims to support the growing movement to end racial injustice by working to identify legislation, regulations, and systems at a state level that are having a discriminatory impact.
“While a particular piece of legislation may or may not have had a discriminatory intent, the way it ends up being interpreted by the court or applied by local authorities may be having a discriminatory impact," said Love. “That is why we’re working to mobilize hundreds of lawyers to do legal research in areas where it may be helpful to draft model legislation that can be used by local and grassroot organizations who are pushing for change in their own communities.”
In a time of great uncertainty on multiple fronts, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation and their network of thousands of dedicated pro bono lawyers have stepped up to the plate. Whether it is helping small businesses and nonprofits navigate the realities of a pandemic or using the power of the law to help fight social injustices affecting marginalized communities, Lawyers for Good Government Foundation has shown the effectiveness of their model’s ability to mobilize quickly in response to any number of pressing harms.