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This 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.
Every Wednesday and Thursday volunteer attorneys assist landlords and tenants through the BBA Lawyer for a Day at the Boston Housing Court Program. VLP relies on volunteers to deliver pro bono services to those in need.
The Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association thanks the following attorneys who accepted cases or provided consultation in March and April:
Samuel Ames Christina Bitter Lisa Callahan Milton D’Andrea Richard Evans Andres Garron Nashwa Gewaily Mindy Green Jasmine Jean-Louis Sharon Jones Timothy Jones Daniel Kon Michael Levesque Julia Lindsey Corrine Lusic Marc Migliazzo Madelyn Morris Justin Murphy Linda Neary Vanessa O’Connor Allison Orpilla John Polley Stephen Provazza David Rome Ryan Sakoda Arielle Schwartz Jordan Smith Kelly Towns Olivia Uitto Irina Vaglica Christopher Versfelt Katy Ward Ajay Zutshi
Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Legal Services Center & Veterans Legal Clinic of Harvard Law School, recently sat down with us to talk about how the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic there has fared in its first year. With financial support from the Boston Bar Foundation, the IRS, and the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, and the donation of time and resources of members of the private bar, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic aims to increase access to legal aid for low-income taxpayers with legal problems related to taxes.
One of the priority populations the Clinic serves is low-income veterans. This year, tax attorneys from the Legal Services Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue and the IRS led a series of trainings at the BBA with the goal of recruiting pro bono attorneys to accept overflow cases from the Clinic. Nagin said over 35 attorneys and tax professionals signed on to our pro bono panel as a result of these trainings. In October, the Clinic also arranged a lunch time program at the BBA with the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson.
These are the questions we asked about the Clinic’s successes and plans for its future:
Q: How would you sum up the Clinic’s first year?
A: There has been tremendous momentum due to a number of intersecting forces. First, there are a substantial number of people who have tax controversies with the IRS and no recourse. Understandably, they feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and often they have no idea that there are defenses available to them. Another force has been the interest from the private bar. There are many attorneys looking to do pro bono work in the area of tax law. We are gratified to the BBF’s partnership in bringing these forces together.
Q: What plans do you have for the Clinic’s future?
A: We are seeing an increasing number of taxpayers with issues with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, so that is one area of our work that we are trying to build out. In the future we hope to address not only federal tax issues, but related state issues. Unfortunately, like many other segments of the community, low-income veterans often have not only one legal problem but multiple legal problems. So, we also have a substantial number of clients who are referred internally at the Legal Services Center from the Veterans Legal Clinic to the Tax Clinic when they contact us about veterans’ law issues but also have tax issues.
Q: Why do you think there is such a need for this type of clinic in the community?
A: It is not uncommon for people who have tax problems to be afraid and unsure what to do—which can lead to people doing nothing and letting deadlines and opportunities to challenge IRS claims pass . Our mission is to eliminate barriers and increase access to help, to make it as easy as possible for people in these situations to get legal representation. The Tax Clinic is now on the list of resources that the Tax Court gives to pro se litigants, so we now have cases referred to us through the Court itself. While we’re not happy that there is such a depth of need in the community, we are gratified to play a role in helping to close the access to justice gap.
Q: Can you share a specific instance of the Clinic helping a taxpayer in need?
A: The Clinic recently completed representation of a disabled combat veteran who had almost $200,000 in tax liability, but it was the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder issues that made it extremely difficult for him to function and that led him into extreme financial distress . The Clinic developed the record to highlight his financial circumstances and developed medical evidence to demonstrate his service-connected mental health issues. In the end, the IRS made the decision to waive nearly the entirety of the tax liability. In another case, this one also involving a disabled veteran, the Clinic is fighting not only an incorrect IRS allegation that the client owes $500,000 in back taxes, but is also arguing that the IRS actually owes the client a refund as a result of seizing his funds to satisfy the incorrect liability. In addition to its work on individual cases of low income taxpayers, the Clinic is pursuing numerous systemic reform efforts to improve tax procedures and tax laws that harm low-income taxpayers.
Q: Why would you encourage an attorney to get involved with the Clinic?
A: There is a tremendous unmet need in the community. Our intake line is overwhelmed with clients seeking legal help who are unable to afford an attorney. Joining our pro bono panel will ensure that we are matching the incredible pro bono energy from the private bar with the pressing need that exists in the community. The cases are also very meaningful. It’s a powerful experience to help someone challenge the IRS when that person would otherwise go without an advocate and be left to his or her own devices in a complex and intimidating matter. The Taxpayer Advocate has done studies showing that taxpayers have a much higher success rate when they are represented. Additionally these cases present opportunities to learn and deepen understanding of tax procedure and the tax laws.