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Pro Bono Week Preview: The Small Business Brief Advice Legal Clinic—Guiding Local Entrepreneurs During Pro Bono Week (and All Year Long)

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By Anne King

This evening, October 22, 2013, the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s Community Economic Development Project will host aSmall Business Brief Advice Legal Clinic as part of Pro Bono Week. The Small Business Clinic is held regularly throughout the year (in every month except August). But it’s a particularly good fit with Pro Bono week because it offers a unique volunteer opportunity for local attorneys: advising community entrepreneurs on legal questions that come up when starting or running a small business.

Tuesday’s clinic will take place at the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Small Business Resource Center. To reach entrepreneurs across the city, the clinic rotates to different locations each month, holds Saturday sessions a few times a year, and also offers occasional Spanish-language clinics.

A valuable service for community-based entrepreneurs

Running a small business—or launching one—can be complicated. The clinic offers an invaluable resource for small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs: free legal advice. As Darryl Maxwell of the DC Bar Pro Bono Programexplains, entrepreneurs come to the clinic with a wide range of questions, including queries about business formation or transitioning from a sole proprietorship, requests for help with real estate contracts and leases, licensing and patent issues, requests for advice on classifying employees and independent contractors, and many more.

But the most common question is: “I want to start a business. What should I do next?” Clinic volunteers provide an important service in discussing the pros and cons of various entity formations, dispelling myths about launching a business, and pointing entrepreneurs in the direction of useful resources.

The clinic encourages entrepreneurs to visit any time they need assistance—and there are many repeat visitors. For example, a clinic visitor might receive assistance with an operating agreement one month, and then the following month she might need help drafting a lease after finding the perfect space.

A rewarding experience for attorney volunteers

Clinic volunteers have an opportunity to make a real impact on local economic development by assisting small business owners and entrepreneurs. Volunteer attorneys act as advisors, counselors, and sounding boards, and they enjoy having the chance to discuss exciting new business ideas with local community members.

The clinic draws a diverse group of attorney volunteers, ranging from first-year law firm associates to retired attorneys, from government lawyers to solo practitioners, and many more.

Several volunteers make the clinic a regular part of their pro bono work, and some attend almost every month. The clinic’s limited scope—volunteers provide brief advice, and aren’t required to commit to ongoing representation—means participating is manageable for attorneys with busy schedules.

Although many volunteers have expertise in relevant areas of the law, such as intellectual property, real estate, and employment law, attorney volunteers need not have any specific background in order to participate. The DC Bar Pro Bono Program offers trainings two times a year and also provides a manual to support attorney volunteers.

If you are a local entrepreneur interested in attending a Small Business Brief Advice Clinic, or an attorney interested in volunteering, you can find out more about the Community Economic Development Project at the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s website!