Pro Bono Spotlight: Goodwin Procter’s Neighborhood Business Initiative

 

NBILogo_FINALThis month, Beyond the Billable is thrilled to feature Goodwin Procter’s Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI) in our “Pro Bono Spotlight” feature. There is a lot to say about all the good the program has done for low-income neighborhoods in the city of Boston, but no one says it better than the attorneys themselves.

We caught up with NBI Founder Anna Dodson, a partner in Goodwin’s Private Equity Group, to hear more about what the firm is doing to help grow the local economy while expanding access to justice.

Can you describe how the Neighborhood Business Initiative began?

In 2001, the idea of providing pro bono legal services to for-profit businesses was in its infancy.  We began offering those services, which would later be formalized into Goodwin’s Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI). We believe that strong, owner-operated neighborhood businesses are fundamentally important for community development and healthy, vibrant city neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to today: Roughly 500 attorneys and other professionals at Goodwin have provided pro bono business legal services to hundreds of low-income entrepreneurs and small-business owners in underserved neighborhoods through direct representation and neighborhood-based legal workshops and clinics, and by partnering with community-based organizations.

Since 2001, how has the NBI program changed and grown?

Our workshops and other programs have grown both in number and in complexity. We started with the basics – Starting and Growing a Business, developed in collaboration with the Economic Justice Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.  Now our suite of 12+ programs includes negotiations, commercial lease, choice of entity, food labelling and doing business on-line.

Is there a particular workshop or clinic that has consistently been the most sought-after or well-attended? If so, what do you think draws people to that program?

As we worked with community partners in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain over the years, we noticed that  many of our program participants were working in the food industry.  These “culinary entrepreneurs” include restaurateurs, caterers and entrepreneurs looking to produce food for retail sale. Responding to the need for specialized assistance, we developed a food labeling curriculum.

Today, a multi-disciplinary team provides interactive workshops on Intellectual Property for food labeling and packaging, food labels and products liability and federal regulation of food labels. Our team frequently collaborates with a corporate partner, such as Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream.  The Boston Beer Company’s team presents the business side of food labeling – creative design, marketing and branding, as well as niche expertise like the rules for beer labels. Our audiences for these business and law of food labeling programs frequently exceed 50 entrepreneurs. We hear from our audiences that the information can be hard to find and that an expert’s insight and strategic perspective is a valuable guide that makes the information more useful.

How does this program benefit specific business owners who participate, their neighborhoods, and the city’s economy? Can you describe why Goodwin Procter has made it a priority to foster the development of small businesses in underserved areas?

From the outset, Goodwin’s NBI program has reflected two core values.  We value access to justice (access to all law for all people) and community development (building neighborhood businesses for diverse, vibrant neighborhoods).  Often, low income business owners are isolated – they may lack sounding boards and advocates. They have to take risks and may have to make hard choices – and often it’s not on a level playing field. Our goal in providing individual representation is to provide legal services to business owners who would not otherwise be able to have the assistance, and to create value that supports the growth of a neighborhood business.

How does this differ from other pro bono opportunities and programs that are out there, both for attorneys and clients? 

Business law attorneys typically have fewer choices than litigators to provide pro bono legal services in an area of law that aligns with their practice. NBI offers Goodwin business law attorneys an opportunity to do good doing what they do best – structuring an entity, negotiating a contract, advising on intellectual property strategy, negotiating a lease, and any number of corporate and transactional matters. It offers an opportunity to develop the strong listening skills needed to undergird strong counseling skills. For the firm’s NBI clients, working with the Goodwin team offers highly responsive, proactive counsel committed to leveling the playing field.

Is there a specific client story or anecdote that you would like to share that exemplifies the impact of this program?

We represented an entrepreneur who was a Brazilian immigrant in taking out a loan from Accion, a nonprofit lender. Goodwin prepared a loan release in Portuguese that would be enforceable in Brazil, a condition to the new loan. Our client used the proceeds of her Accion loan for working capital and to repay a predatory lender who used intimidation tactics. Our legal services were an important component of a transaction that yielded peace of mind and safety for a low income businesswoman, and a well-stocked, woman-owned corner market for the neighborhood.

 

What else would you like someone who has never heard of this program before to know?

One of the biggest challenges of a program like Goodwin’s NBI is reaching eligible clientele.  Most entrepreneurs and small business owners do not think or expect that they would qualify for pro bono assistance, so engaging with them requires a lot of outreach and education. We have made a concerted effort to connect with local business owners through partnering with community organizations, and personally going out into the community and offering clinics and workshops.  At the same time, we are ever sensitive to the need to support small law firms in the neighborhoods, so we dedicate a lot of time and effort to vet potential clients to ensure that, but for our pro bono assistance, they could not otherwise afford to engage legal counsel for the matter requested.  We also define the scope of our representation to discrete requests and do not provide ongoing assistance.  We have essentially created a self-contained legal services group within our firm, and lead it with the assistance of two dozen Goodwin attorneys who serve on local NBI steering committees in Boston, New York and San Francisco.