DLA Piper is no stranger to pro bono work. The firm’s Pro Bono Committee regularly takes on pro bono clients who need assistance in a wide variety of areas, from immigration matters and veterans affairs to litigation. But with approximately half of its Boston-based attorneys specializing in real estate, members of the firm’s pro bono committee, including Brian Hochleutner, saw potential for more.
“As a transactional lawyer, it can be hard to find interesting pro bono work within your specialty,” said Hochleutner, a partner in DLA Piper’s real estate group. “As lawyers become more senior and more specialized; many would like to do pro bono work that’s in their subject matter.”
Hochleutner had handled pro bono real estate work, including leasing, for a variety of non-profit groups like the Girl Scouts, work that led to a big “thank you” in the form of a giant case of his cookie of choice, Thin Mints. But connecting pro bono clients who need a real estate lawyer, and real estate lawyers in search of good pro bono work, can be a challenge. Some of this is because nonprofits do not always think to find a lawyer to help with their leasing work.
DLA Piper found the seed of an idea for addressing this issue when the firm participated in the City of Boston’s Main Street program, where firm attorneys volunteered to offer legal advice to the small businesses and entrepreneurs in attendance.
“Several of DLA Piper’s Boston real estate attorneys — Jarrod Matteson and Chris Price – put together a presentation on the basics of commercial leasing, knowing that their audience was made up of people who are trying to get a business started and don’t always have the money to spend on a lawyer,” explained Hochleutner. “And that got us thinking from a pro bono standpoint about how we could leverage that idea, and whether there were other groups who might benefit.”
Hochleutner and his DLA Piper pro bono committee colleagues Rich Gruenberger, Geoff Howell, and Emma Yashar connected with Machiko Sano Hewitt, Legal Referral Director for The Lawyers Clearinghouse, which is a Boston Bar Foundation grantee organization that works to connect lawyers with substantive pro bono opportunities. Working together, they put together a one day clinic where non-profit organizations with concerns or questions about their leases could come to DLA Piper’s office and consult with an attorney for free.
“Boston is home to a lot of non-profits doing great work, and very nearly all of them have a lease,” said Hochleutner. “However, many don’t hire an attorney to review it, either because of budget concerns or they may have the idea that it’s not that difficult a process.”
But in Hochleutner’s experience, there are things a lawyer can spot before the lease is signed that can save time, money, and aggravation later. For example, a landlord may include overbroad language with expansive tenant indemnity obligations or that allows the owner to pass on costs of potential future building renovations to the tenants over and above the rent, each of which could result in unanticipated costs that can wreak havoc on a small non-profit’s budget.
“When you’re running a non-profit, you need predictability in budget. A lot of time, it’s just a matter of having a conversation and walking them through the issues you’ve flagged and working out a plan for negotiation. But if you don’t know what items you can and should push back on, you’re not in a good place to negotiate.”
The February clinic was so well attended – by both attorneys and pro bono clients – that DLA Piper is planning to hold a second one in June, with the goal of having regular quarterly clinics to follow. And in addition to offering legal advice and representation on lease negotiation, DLA Piper hopes to leverage its relationships with commercial real estate brokers where appropriate cases, to help non-profits that need assistance from a broker obtain help on a pro bono basis.
“We’ve had non-profits reach out to us and ask if they can get advice on finding a new office or advising on the fairness of the proposed rent,” he explained. “In those cases we have sought to connect the client with a broker who can help them pro bono to get the right space or understand the market better, while we help get them with the provisions in the lease.”
And who knows? Perhaps there’s a lease renewal in the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts’ future.