Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 3.3 on Community Economic Development

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A provider should consider representing clients in community economic development aimed at strengthening low income communities.


General considerations

Many of the challenges facing clients result from the lack of affordable housing, the paucity of goods and services to meet their needs and the lack of available employment to provide needed income. Low income communities often do not have an adequate economic and social infrastructure to meet the needs of their members. Lack of employment opportunities in and near low income communities add to the difficulties encountered by their residents, particularly as an increasing number of low income persons rely on employment for income. In other circumstances, the needs of low income residents will arise in the context of economically diverse communities in which the challenge is to increase the degree to which existing services are available and affordable for low income persons.

To respond to these problems, a legal aid provider may decide to undertake community economic development [CED] on behalf of low income clients. Community economic development seeks to increase assets able to produce needed housing, goods and services and provide employment opportunities for low income persons. Community economic development attempts to build institutions that directly involve members of the low income community in their design and operation. It seeks to build capacity in communities in ways that place the tools of beneficial community change in the hands of low income persons. In some circumstances, building capacity to serve and create opportunities for low income persons may involve working entirely with low income clients. In others, it may involve working with partners to develop and implement strategies that benefit many, including low income persons.

Community economic development may involve a number of representational activities:

  • Addressing legal aspects of the formation of community and business organizations;
  • Counseling clients regarding the legal conduct of business activities;
  • Providing transactional support, including acquisition of property, financing, development, and compliance with land use and zoning requirements;
  • Assuring compliance with business licensing and employment laws;
  • Providing representation on issues related to taxation;
  • Negotiating and drafting loan agreements, leases and contracts;
  • Serving as corporate counsel, and
  • Examining and monitoring legislation that could affect clients' projects.

A wide and varied range of objectives might be accomplished through community economic development. A project might, for example, seek to create child care centers in low income communities to serve low income workers, including persons with early or late shifts for whom child-care is especially problematic. Clients might identify the lack of adequate long‑term health care facilities for the elderly and seek to create an enterprise to provide home health care for persons who need it. A project might develop housing for purchase or rental by low income families or transitional housing for homeless persons. A job placement program might be developed to locate jobs that pay a decent wage and provide benefits. Or a provider might seek to increase individual assets by setting up a matched savings account fund in which each deposit by a low income participant is matched by the fund.

Community economic development often has more intangible objectives associated with building capacity in the community. It can help in the development of informed and effective leaders. Clients may develop a firmer understanding of how laws create order and opportunity, creating a framework and the insight necessary to bring about change. It can also impart planning and business skills that can lead to broader change.

Responsibilities of the provider

A decision to undertake economic development should be made in the context of the provider's planning regarding how best to respond to the needs of its clients. The provider should be attentive to the degree to which there may be fundraising opportunities to support community economic development work.

A provider that undertakes economic development has a number of responsibilities. The provider needs to hire practitioners who have expertise in pertinent substantive law and the requisite skills to achieve client objectives. If its practitioners are not experienced in the field, it needs to assure that those who undertake the work receive appropriate training. The practitioners should understand the operation of businesses and corporations, as well as banking and financial markets, and should be familiar with the agencies, boards, major corporations, and other decision‑makers that play an important role in local and regional development. They also need to be effective working with groups and understanding the dynamics of relationships within and among groups.

Community economic development is an area where private attorneys can be helpful, particularly if their practice involves related issues. Private attorneys whose practice consists largely of corporate clients, for example, can make an important contribution to such representation. They can also assist the provider to gain access for clients to institutions and individuals who can provide assistance.

The provider needs to have policies that address the unique nature of the attorney-client relationship with CED clients. Because engagement may be through many phases of development and often involves client groups with limited business experience, it is important for the provider to define the practitioner's role clearly at each phase of development. It is important that the practitioner and client both understand that the practitioner’s role is to be a legal advisor to the effort, not its principal organizer.

Community economic development generally involves working with groups. Many ethical challenges can arise in working with groups, particularly in the early phases of organizational development. It is important to identify clearly who the client is. To ensure that conflicts are avoided, the provider needs to assure that its practitioners are careful to identify who has decision-making authority, an identified leader or the group through an agreed process.

It is also important for the provider to be alert to possible conflicts among its organizational clients that may not be as obvious as conflicts among individual clients. Such conflicts could range from assistance to groups seeking grants from the same revenue stream to conflicts over the ultimate goals of various CED projects.

The provider should also be alert to potential conflicts with individuals who have an interest adverse to an organization created through economic development effort. To identify any such conflicts, the provider should be certain that its organizational clients are listed in its conflict management system. The provider should also recognize the possibility that it may on occasion need to represent its organizational clients as an employer or a landlord of a low income person.

The provider also has an ongoing responsibility to determine with the practitioners engaged in CED work, the level of ongoing commitment to the clients. Because development projects can be of long duration and with successful groups can lead to new projects, the long term commitment of resources can be significant. The provider needs to be alert to the point when an organization is self-sustaining, one of the goals of CED work, and no longer needs free legal assistance. In like vein, the provider needs to be judicious in determining when to become general counsel, since the obligations can easily exceed the capacity of the provider.

As with other delivery strategies, a legal aid provider engaged in community economic development should periodically assess the effectiveness of its effort and if they are accomplishing their intended objectives. The assessment should address both success in creating capacity that produces intended goods and services and the often less tangible outcome of building community infrastructure and supporting leadership development.