January 31, 2011

FOCUSING ON PRO BONO: A State Bar Steps Up for Small Business

Allyn M. O'Connor

Like many small business owners, the catering company proprietor was trying to contain expenses. Her heating costs were impacting her bottom line and regardless of what she did, the bills remained high. Unreasonably and inexplicably high. After she took the time to compare her square footage with her heat usage, she realized the landlord was billing her business to heat vacant space in the building. The owner needed assistance in renegotiating the terms of her lease. She received it from volunteer Wisconsin business lawyer Joshua Kons, who helped eliminate the overbilling.

This business owner connected with Kons through the Business Assistance Program. The Business Assistance Program (BAP) is a project of the Entrepreneurial Law Committee of the State Bar of Wisconsin's Business Law Section. Under BAP, section members volunteer to provide up to two hours' free counseling to small and emerging businesses throughout Wisconsin. BAP is administered through the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Network (WEN), a statewide coalition of over 100 organizations that provide entrepreneurs and small businesses with access to expertise, resources and other services.

A small business in need of legal assistance contacts WEN staff directly or on-line, providing basic information about the enterprise, its location, and the nature of its legal need. WEN staff then identifies the volunteer whose expertise and location are the best match for the client. If the volunteer agrees to take the matter, WEN staff exchanges contact information between the client and the volunteer attorney. "The attorneys who participate in the Business Assistance Program have been very willing to help when they are asked," notes Ashwini Rao, WEN Program Manager.

Fifty-two law firms have volunteered to provide assistance under BAP, as well as a clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Volunteer lawyers have assisted hundreds of Wisconsin businesses since BAP was created. In the last six months alone, WEN staff has successfully placed 25 requests for assistance, and WEN staff typically is able to match a business with a volunteer in less than a week.

Volunteer lawyers have assisted a variety of businesses across the state, including construction firms, wholesale and retail businesses, and small manufacturers. They also have assisted many professional services firms, including those in the marketing, graphic design, education, and health fields. Volunteers often work with entrepreneurs to create organizational documents. Established businesses typically need assistance with lease contract negotiation or regulatory matters, such as obtaining licenses, registrations, and permits.

Business owners reflect positively on their experience with BAP. Anthony Mlachnik sought start-up assistance for his elite basketball training business. While starting his business, Mlachnik had legal questions on formation, operation, and intellectual property matters. BAP connected Mlachnik with Todd Goodwin at Schober Schober and Mitchell, S.C. Goodwin "really helped us get our company off the ground," says Mlachnik, and has been available for follow-up questions. He recommends BAP to entrepreneurs as "an opportunity to not only create a better company but to be educated by legal professionals."

Dance/exercise studio owner Jackie Steinhauer also recommends BAP. BAP paired her with Sam Wayne of the Madison-based firm Erhard & Payette, LLC. Wayne reviewed an agreement and later a lease for Steinhauer. Steinhauer eventually became a paying client, seeking advice on a separate matter. Wayne was pleased to have the opportunity to work with Steinhauer. Wayne appreciated the chance to work pro bono on matters within his areas of expertise. He believes the experience can benefit business owners in many ways--one of Wayne's BAP clients, for instance, was afraid the cost of consulting a lawyer would be prohibitive. Now, Wayne says, the client "is more likely to consider using a lawyer in the future."

Other volunteers also appreciate the experience. In addition to assisting the gourmet caterer, volunteer Joshua Kons has worked with small consulting firms, landscaping and land surveying businesses, and a floral and plant wholesaler. Kons concedes some clients come to BAP on a reactive basis, often with litigation-based matters needing attention. Still, he has not hesitated to assist. While he was growing up, Kons' parents ran a small business. "Legal services were the last thing they could afford," says Kons. "Clients benefit a great deal from no-cost advice," he observes. "It helps them get the lay of the land on a matter."

Both Wayne and Kons recommend volunteering to assist entrepreneurs and small businesses. As a BAP volunteer, a business lawyer can hone legal skills and work on business development. Most of all, providing pro bono legal assistance to small businesses enables a lawyer to be in touch with and meet the legal needs of the local business community. For business owners like Anthony Mlachnik, pro bono legal assistance programs are a great resource. "It really shows that there are individuals [and] firms out [there] concerned about small business owners."

Additional Resources

The ABA Business Law Pro Bono Project is a joint effort between the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Business Law Section. The Project provides resources, technical assistance, training and other information to business lawyers and legal service providers in order to enhance and expand the delivery of a variety of business law pro bono legal services programs. The goals of the Project are to develop, support, and foster the growth of pro bono and public service opportunities for Business Law Section members that maximize their unique skill sets; maximize the Business Law Section's volunteer and paid resources through centralized administrative support, planning, and funding; and, coordinate the Business Law Section's pro bono and public service efforts with those of other ABA and non-ABA legal professional organizations. The Project is a national clearinghouse for information on starting and operating a business pro bono project and acts as a national catalyst for expanding provision for business law pro bono services.

Allyn M. O'Connor

Allyn M. O'Connor is ABA assistant staff counsel, Business Law Pro Bono Project, in Chicago.