By Christine Kulumani
Long before Northern Virginia was announced as home to Amazon’s HQ2, many Amazon employees called a Ballston office building “work” and the D.C. metro area “home.”
In 2019, Aisha Gantt, Senior Corporate Counsel at Amazon Web Services (AWS), reached out to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center to discuss how Amazon’s legal team could use their skills to support the District’s nonprofits and small businesses. After reviewing the Center’s Nonprofit & Small Business Legal Assistance Program needs and the skills of Gantt and her team, the organizations partnered to launch a brand-new service: the Startup Legal Clinic for Nonprofits & Small Businesses.
For the inaugural Startup Legal Clinic, organized at Amazon’s offices by AWS Infrastructure Legal program manager Sally St. Clair, volunteers met with seven small businesses and entrepreneurs to discuss forming a legal entity, obtaining necessary registrations, licenses, permits, and other necessary legal steps to kickstart their dreams.
Six nonprofit organizations also received in-depth information and one-on-one advice on DC requirements for nonprofit organizations, filing for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, and more.
“Fantastic document pack and a great experience. I … really enjoyed the whole experience,” said one Amazon attorney after the clinic. “I was extremely impressed with the materials prepared—extremely effective and practical. I would love to do this again.”
Other clients were similarly thrilled with the experience: “My attorneys were amazing, loved their energy as well as knowledge!!!” and “I feel so much more prepared with the information they provided and the next steps with my organization.”
Amazon planned to host the next Startup Legal Clinic in spring 2020 after receiving positive feedback from all parties, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation. Despite the lockdown, Amazon was determined to continue partnering with the Pro Bono Center to provide legal services to the local business community and began to plan a virtual relaunch of the event. One virtual Startup Legal Clinic served clients in October 2020 and another in July 2021. Together, these clinics served another 26 new small businesses and 26 nonprofit organizations as diverse in purpose as a food truck, a couture gown designer, and a nonprofit organization that supports survivors of sexual abuse.
Thanks to enthusiastic internal support for pro bono work at Amazon, relationships with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and other pro bono partners continue to evolve and grow. By delivering legal services remotely, Amazon’s volunteer base expanded from 9 volunteers to 21 during the most recent clinic. And, in future partnerships with the Nonprofit & Small Business Legal Assistance Program, Amazon will bring in new pro bono partners to help small business owners with a variety of legal needs beyond startup assistance.
Amazon’s pro bono service has already had a significant impact on the community they call home. One client noted, “The attorneys were great! I have a clearer understanding of what starting a business in D.C. entails, and I feel more prepared to do it. Thank you so much for creating this necessary legal clinic!”
Christine Kulumani is a staff Staff Attorney with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.