August 13, 2020 Practice Points

How Can Real Estate Litigation Attorneys Help Diverse Communities?

A few tips beyond donating money, from pro bono services supporting low-income tenants to representing small businesses owned by people of color.

By Paul Stibbe
We are not doing enough to fight against the systemic racism in the real estate industry and our legal system.

We are not doing enough to fight against the systemic racism in the real estate industry and our legal system.

The last few months have taught us an important lesson: We are not doing enough to stand up for and advance people of color and other diverse communities, and to account for the impact of systemic racism in our current legal system. I have heard many friends and colleagues express that they want to do more to support members of our diverse communities, but they feel that all they can do is donate money. Money makes a very real difference, so please do not stop giving if you are able, but those reading this also should remember that we have another weapon in our arsenals: We are lawyers. There is a plethora of opportunities for real estate litigation attorneys to put their specialized skill set to good use by providing impactful legal aid to at-risk, diverse individuals. Below are just a few ideas for how we can help.

Represent Low-Income Tenants

Consider volunteering your time representing low-income tenants. Many nonprofit organizations across the country provide eviction defense; protection from housing discrimination; and support in ensuring that affordable housing, among other services, remains attainable. In many places across the country, these issues disproportionately affect people of color.

Represent Individuals Facing Mortgage Foreclosures

Predatory or deceptive lending practices are common in low-income and minority communities, where individuals frequently lack the access to more traditional banking and lending services, forcing residents to instead rely on alternative financing from less regulated sources. Particularly hard hit within these communities are elderly and other individuals on fixed incomes who are forced to borrow for some unexpected reason and their principal asset is their home. Providing counseling to these individuals prior to foreclosure and into the dispute process can potentially provide much-needed housing security for these communities. This avenue may be particularly accessible to attorneys who wish to provide advice without taking on a full case, as many groups offer free advice to individuals facing a potential mortgage foreclosure without promising full representation.

Represent Small Businesses

Real estate-focused attorneys can have a lasting impact on underserved communities by providing voluntary counseling for small businesses in historically underinvested communities, especially those with large percentages of persons of color and other diverse groups. Helping businesses grow with intention can provide these people and communities the foothold they need to push toward economic equality. As real estate attorneys, many of us with vast litigation experience, we bring a unique and helpful perspective to the table, such as when it comes to these businesses negotiating a lease or seeking financing. This area also is another opportunity to potentially provide pro bono legal services by offering advice, rather than taking on a full dispute.

Represent Individuals Navigating Complicated Governmental Regulations and Requirements

The above are not the only ways that we can help. As litigators, we have tools to navigate disputes or potential disputes that fall outside of our wheelhouses, while still providing a tangible impact on the lives of at-risk individuals. For instance, consider working with an immigration-focused nonprofit, or consider volunteering for a pending social security matter in the administrative or federal courts. Judicial and administrative processes that even we find daunting are often insurmountable for a layperson, meaning that they miss out on support from various social safety nets. These opportunities have major impacts on persons of color.

This Practice Point cannot even begin to cover all the organizations that exist across the country, so I encourage you to explore options that exist in your community. A simple search online will likely direct you to the organization you are looking for, and, at the very least, such a search will direct you to more generalized legal aid organizations in your community, which also may be able to help you find the perfect organization or matter for you to take on. However, the most important thing is that we all do something, no matter if that something is supporting diverse communities with our wallets, our work, or—even better—both.

Paul F. Stibbe is an associate with Greenberg Traurig in Chicago, Illinois. He also serves as cochair of the Young Lawyers and Diversity subcommittees of the Real Estate, Condemnation, and Trust Litigation Committee.


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