The past year has been one of immense challenges for businesses of all types and sizes throughout Wisconsin.
The COVID-19 pandemic created financial and operational stresses for businesses dealing with forced closures due to governmental orders, sick employees, supply chain shortages, distribution constraints, and other disruptions. Civil unrest due racial and political tensions have further strained businesses across the state with property damage, lost sales, and other problems.
These challenges generated legal questions for impacted businesses, including contract, employment, real estate, insurance, and regulatory concerns. Legal difficulties create further financial and operational burdens.
While larger businesses may have the resources to absorb these impacts and obtain legal guidance, small businesses are often unable to afford necessary legal guidance.
As these crises unfolded across Wisconsin, members of the State Bar of Wisconsin Business Law Section realized that these events created an immediate, urgent, and often unsatisfied demand for legal support for impacted small businesses.
Recognizing a Need for Legal Assistance
These events highlighted an ongoing need for legal assistance for small businesses even when the current crises have abated. At the same time, the Business Law Section identified an opportunity to address this need for small businesses in Wisconsin.
Peter S. Trotter, Illinois 2000, is vice president and general counsel of Mason Companies, Inc.
Attorneys with expertise in litigation often have many opportunities for providing volunteer support for underserved and needy constituencies. Fewer opportunities are available for business attorneys, but the desire to volunteer is not limited by practice area.
Wisconsin business lawyers present an untapped resource for providing volunteer legal assistance to small Wisconsin businesses that are otherwise unable to afford legal assistance.
In response to the need of small Wisconsin businesses, and with consideration for the interest of Wisconsin business attorneys, the Business Law Section organized a project team to investigate, evaluate, and recommend a solution.
The team found that solution in partnership with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic (MVLC). The MVLC is a legal clinic offering legal services to underserved clients. The clinic is operated by the Marquette University Law School and staffed by law school students working under the supervision of volunteer attorneys.
The Small Business Assistance Project
The project team worked with the MVLC to develop a statewide Small Business Assistance project that utilizes MVLC staff and students to administer the program and to provide preliminary screening. Following this screening, a brief consultation will be provided with a volunteer attorney.
Once eligibility is established and basic information is provided, consultations take place on Friday mornings. Consultations are held by phone or Zoom, as determined by the client. This consultation lasts up to an hour.
As of Feb. 5, 2021, volunteer attorneys in the Small Business Assistance project are assisting clients, in coordination with students and staff of the MVLC.
Assistance is provided on many areas of business law, such as finance, insurance, leasing, tax, employment, real estate, debtor/creditor, and regulatory compliance. However, assistance is not provided in certain matters, such as litigation, business formation, intellectual property, and certain real estate transactions.
The services being offered are not intended to compete with practicing attorneys, and businesses with the ability to pay for legal services should do so. However, to the extent an applicant business needs assistance, that assistance will be provided within certain limitations, including time constraints and available expertise.
If the client’s need cannot be addressed during that consultation, an additional consultation independent of the MVLC may be provided by a volunteer attorney with the relevant expertise. To the extent the client’s needs cannot be addressed in this additional consultation, the business may be referred to other resources for additional assistance.
While the program was initially set up in response to the recent crises faced by small businesses in Wisconsin, the Business Law Section plans to extend the program beyond these crises as dictated by the needs of participating businesses. The Business Law Section will continue to monitor and modify the program as appropriate in the future.
All members of the State Bar of Wisconsin are welcome and encouraged to join the Business Law Section in responding to this need. This is an outstanding opportunity for Wisconsin business attorneys to support underserved small Wisconsin businesses and help them respond to legal challenges.
Please note that volunteer attorneys must be capable of providing required assistance. The MVLC delivers basic training on the program and guidance regarding interaction with clinic clients. Pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, volunteer attorneys should limit the services they provide to extent of their expertise and their ability to provide assistance.
Where to Sign Up
Attorneys can obtain additional information at wisbar.org/smallbusiness and can express interest on the State Bar's Pro Bono Portal. Once signed up, your training and volunteer service will be coordinated by the MVLC.
Referrals of small business applicants for assistance are also welcome. Potential clients should visit wisbar.org/smallbusiness for further information, and can schedule their appointment online.
Find out more about the Small Business Assistance project in the Feb. 3, 2021, issue of InsideTrack.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Business Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.