General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 2
March 2000




This commentary, using the D.C. Bar Community Economic Development Pro Bono Project (D.C. Bar CED Project) as a working example, describes how transactional pro bono lawyers can support community economic development. A pilot operation of the D.C. Bar Public Service Activities Corporation, the D.C. Bar CED Project is a model of effective pro bono legal service delivery for community economic development (CED).

History of CED in the Capitol. The D.C. Bar CED Project is growing against a backdrop of national economic development initiatives. A number of major cities, including the District of Columbia, have endorsed a new model of economic development created by Harvard University Business Professor Michael Porter and referred to as "the competitive advantage of the inner city." This economic development model recognizes the unique strengths of urban areas, specifically strategic location, local market demand, integration with regional business clusters, and underutilized human resources. Based on these findings, Professor Porter has created the nonprofit organization, Initiative for the Competitive Inner City (ICIC), based in Boston.

With the aid of ICIC and under the leadership of District Mayor Anthony Williams, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development mobilized the city to consider its economic opportunities and ultimately identified six engines of economic growth: (1) information/technology/telecommunications; (2) hospitality/entertainment/tourism/specialty retail; (3) business/professional/financial/association services; (4) media/publications; (5) university/educational/research institutions; and (6) biomedical research/health services. These potential growth areas are tied to a regional economy that includes suburban Virginia and Maryland, prime locations for business and technology. Lawyers working with community-based organizations (CBOs), small businesses, and nonprofit groups can help clients benefit from these identified growth industries and prepare them for the technological realities of doing business in the twenty-first century.

Components of CED Service Delivery: Match Program, Ne-ighborhood Clinic, and Edu-cation/Information. There are three components to the D.C. Bar CED Project. The first is the CED Match Program, which provides legal counsel and assistance to community development organizations by placing them with teams of transactional lawyers and law firms and thus providing them with pro bono general counsel legal assistance. The second program is the Neighborhood CED Clinic and the third program provides legal education and information about CED law for participating lawyers.

The Neighborhood CED Clinic opened on February 25, 1999, and was sponsored jointly by Manna Community Development Cor-poration (Manna CDC) and the Small Business Clinic/Community Economic Development Project of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinic at The George Washington University Law School (GWUBC). The Neighborhood Clinic is unique because it assigns pro bono lawyers to work with both economically disadvantaged small businesses and community-based nonprofit groups. Pro bono case placement is labor intensive; the clinic approach, which enables lawyers and clients to meet at one time, maximizes time and effort.

For our first clinic, the involvement of Manna CDC, a community-building initiative that plays a significant role in the human, economic, and social development of the Shaw neighborhood, was critical. Manna CDC was assured by the project staff that the clinic would help advance community-based development strategies. As part of its Community Listening Project, Manna engaged student volunteers to survey the Shaw community and determine the number and needs of small businesses. The Shaw community was targeted not only because the survey supported need but also because it is the site of both the newly constructed MCI Center and of the D.C. Convention Center, due to open in March 2003.

Manna's community-building initiative is studying the pressures on the neighborhood from those projects. A significant lesson from the construction of the MCI Center was that local jobs created by small businesses must be preserved, and new jobs must be created not only during but also after construction. Manna's business community survey located 42 small businesses in the Shaw neighborhood, all of which were invited to apply for legal assistance. Nineteen of the businesses completed applications.

The Neighborhood CED Clinic's other partner, GWUSBC, was critical to the outcome of the first Neighborhood CED Clinic as well. Ten law students enrolled in the GWUSBC prescreened the 19 businesses, wrote detailed intake memoranda, reviewed supporting legal and financial data, and occasionally served as advocates for prospective clients who otherwise might have been rejected. In one case, the business owner requested help in resolving a dispute with a professional service provider. After interviewing the business owner and consulting with his professor, the law student recognized that the business required organizational aid. The business had been incorporated several years before but it lacked records of bylaws or corporate minutes.

Involvement of the GWUSBC was critical for other reasons. For example, when the small business owner discussed above expressed his concerns about inadequate resources to help small business owners, the law student was able to inform him about resources such as the Small Business Development Center Pro-gram of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the Service Core of Retired Executives (SCORE), SBA microloan programs that are administered through community development corporations, and microenterprise development programs created by nonprofit organizations. In addition, because the clinic has provided small business legal assistance to the Washington, D.C., community since 1978, it has become an essential legal resource for small businesses in the area. Two of the cases that were accepted by the D.C. Bar CED Project were referrals from the GWUSBC.

Lessons from the D.C. Bar CED Project. Many low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs start small businesses without adequate professional help. Pro bono and CED projects also serve as an entry point to other support systems, providing a neighborhood-wide context for the issues raised in individual instances. Screening legal issues and identifying appropriate cases for the Neighborhood Legal Clinic requires lawyers, law students, paralegals, and trained community workers who can provide referrals to legal assistance. Training is essential to familiarize legal workers with corporate, tax, real estate, and intellectual property concerns of small businesses, plus the regulatory and zoning matters that can be easily overlooked by persons unaccustomed to working with microbusinesses.

Moreover, many of the legal issues are governed by local or state law. Because of the District's unique governmental status, many business protection opportunities such as state trademark registration are unavailable. In addition to providing sound legal advice, transactional lawyers also network on behalf of small businesses-directing them to the resources and services that can help businesses thrive during all stages of their development. We have seen many small businesses in the D.C. Bar CED Project that have been unable to move from infancy to adolescence or maturity because they lack appropriate technical assistance.

In addition to working with CDCs and law school legal clinics, bar associations contemplating a CED pro bono project should consult with a variety of organizations, which can provide a rich base of prospective transactional cases appropriate for pro bono representation. One example of such an entity is the Small Business Development Centers (SBDC), a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration that provides nationwide counseling, training, and specialized support through state and local centers. Other examples include local chambers of commerce; and regional boards of trade, which offer innovative projects such as the Neighborhood Business Partners Program that matches neighborhood small businesses with Board of Trade members who can strengthen business knowledge and economic bases.

Other entities include microenterprise development programs that provide business education, technical assistance, and/or loans to economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs, and that always need help with a range of legal issues that cover program mergers, creating joint ventures and for-profit subsidiaries, and maintaining tax exempt status. Finally, the National Congress for Community Economic Develop-ment, a membership organization that promotes, supports, and advocates on behalf of community-based organizations, provides access to a full range of services for emerging and established CDCs to achieve economic viability for the communities they serve.

Susan R. Jones, the associate editor of the Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law, is a professor of clinical law and director of the Small Business Clinic/Community Economic Development Project at the George Washington University Law School.

For more Information About the forum on Affordable Housing and Community Development Law

  • This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 18 of Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, Fall 1999 (9:1).
  • For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.
  • Website:
  • Periodicals: Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, quarterly journal; Membership Directory, biannual directory.
  • Books and Other Recent Publications: The Internet; Housing, Banking, Real Property Law and Planning Sites, HUD and Other Governmental Materials.

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