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  • Inside Track
    February 03, 2021

    Small Businesses Hit by COVID Get Free Legal Help from Wisconsin Lawyers

    The State Bar of Wisconsin Business Law Section has launched Small Business Assistance, a project offering free legal advice to Wisconsin small-business owners.

    Shannon Green

    small business open sign

    Feb. 3, 2021 – Small businesses in Wisconsin now have a place to go for free legal advice on issues they face due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the tough economy.

    Starting Feb. 5, 2021, volunteer attorneys will meet with clients each Friday for an hourlong appointment, as part of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Section’s new Small Business Assistance project.

    The project, implemented in collaboration with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics (MVLC), pairs volunteer attorneys and law students with small-business owners who have legal questions relating to their businesses.

    “Small Business Assistance will support a wide variety of small businesses,” including those that provide business services; restaurants and bars; retail; health, beauty and fitness; automotive repair, travel and lodging; and recreation, said Patricia J. Lane, section board member and organizer of the project. Lane is a partner with Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee.

    A Very Real Need

    Small businesses account for 99.4% of all businesses in Wisconsin, and they employ nearly half the state’s workforce.

    Shannon GreenShannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    The project was started when lawyers in the section realized the severe impact 2020 has had on small businesses around the state. “We are keenly aware of the impact COVID-19 and other events have had on small businesses,” Lane said.

    “One way we can help these business – and thereby the community at large – is to provide free legal advice,” Lane said. “We hope this will increase the chances that a local business will be able to survive and thrive – thereby preserving jobs.”

    “We hope that these business owners may get a renewed sense of hope in circumstances that otherwise seemed bleak,” said Nadelle Grossman, section vice chairperson and associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at Marquette Law School.

    Origins amid Pandemic

    The section began working on the project last summer. Lane recognized the need after hearing that business lawyers were receiving many questions from small-business owners on issues regarding compliance with COVID-19 governmental orders, whether force majeure clauses in contracts may be invoked to excuse performance, and governmental loan programs, including determining eligibility and compliance.

    “Other owners needed assistance with business-interruption insurance claims and labor matters,” Lane said.

    While the project currently offers three appointments per week, additional appointments may be added in the future. “We will calibrate our future level of service to meet demand,” Lane said.

    Pro Bono Opportunity for Business Lawyers

    The project also carries a bonus for her colleagues: offering pro bono opportunities within the practice area. “Business lawyers typically have fewer opportunities than litigators to provide pro bono services,” Lane said. “We are finding that this initiative is especially attractive to our section members.”

    Volunteers with the project have direct client interaction, and gain valuable experience in business law, Grossman said. “They also have the opportunity to collaborate with law students at Marquette, helping the students develop their professional skills as future lawyers,” which benefits the profession.

    Volunteers Wanted

    All business lawyers are welcome and encouraged to volunteer with the Small Business Assistance project. Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to sign up on the Small Business Assistance webpage on the State Bar's Pro Bono Portal on Volunteers need to complete 1.25 hours of free training, offered through the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics.

    Learn more about finding pro bono opportunities on the State Bar’s Pro Bono Portal – and get a tour of the portal website via this video from Jeff Brown, State Bar pro bono manager.

    Small Business Assistance Project: Get the Facts

    What: Free legal advice for small businesses from attorney volunteers sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin Business Law Section.

    When: Fridays beginning Feb. 5, 2021. Three one-hour appointments are available each Friday at 8:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 10:30 a.m.

    How: Small-business owners must sign up in advance. Schedule online or call (414) 278-3965 and leave a voicemail.

    Advice on Business Law Matters

    Eligible participants may receive brief assistance on a wide variety of business law matters. Topics include, but are not limited to:

    • finance and lending;
    • insurance claims and coverage;
    • commercial leases and contracts;
    • taxes;
    • labor and employment;
    • real estate;
    • commercial debtor/creditor; and
    • regulatory compliance, including privacy and COVID-19 related requirements.

    The project does not handle issues involving:

    • litigation;
    • entity selection and formation;
    • patent, trademark, or other intellectual property issues; and
    • commercial real estate transactions.

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