Lawyers offer pro-bono help for Mattapan businesses

For small business owners in the Mattapan community, knowing how to do things like sign a lease, hire employees or become a corporation might not come as a second nature.

With this in mind, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ Economic Justice Project partners their member law firms with low-income communities to offer pro bono legal advice to disadvantaged entrepreneurs, through free workshops in Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts.

The newest law office to join the collaboration is the Philadelphia-based firm Pepper Hamilton, whose Boston office will offer a workshop May 18 for Mattapan and Haitian community members. At the workshop, low-income business owners with “discreet legal issues” such as concerns about leases or contracts can also apply to receive free representation from a Pepper Hamilton attorney.

“Generally speaking, there are a pretty high level overview of things that small business owners, either that are starting up or in existence who haven’t had an attorney, should be thinking about,” said Jessica Sommer, program director for the Economic Justice Project.

At the attorney-taught workshops, topics that are touched upon include hiring and firing employees, forming a business entity, what to think about when entering into a contract with a supplier, and how to become a limited liability company or a corporation, which Sommer said many people assume is reserved for massive companies like Coca Cola.

“These corporate forums are made for everybody and they’re really there so people can protect themselves and their personal assets if anything were to happen,” Sommer said.

Following a workshop she attended in the beginning stages of opening her Brockton restaurant, Belle Epoque Café and Bakery, DJ Devaris applied to receive counsel from an EJP-partnered firm in February after feeling overcharged by lawyers she hired.

“Bottom line is, we’ve never done this before, so we knew nothing. We knew absolutely nothing,” she said.

Devaris needed help adjusting her lease; she said the EJP lawyer asked her what she wanted from the owner, and then went over the lease to make sure she was “getting everything [she was] promised.” Devaris also received help a second time with re-filing LLC papers.

“They treated us like a top-quality client,” she said.

The Lawyers’ Committee has been in place since the Kennedy administration, with the intention of partnering law firms with pro bono civil rights cases. In 2001, the Economic Justice Project came about to benefit business owners in local minority and low-income communities, partially by forming partnerships like the one between Pepper Hamilton and the Mattapan and Haitian communities.

“The Haitian community is a pretty active business community, lots of entrepreneurs,” said Carline Durocher, an attorney at Pepper Hamilton and a Haitian-American. “I think for many of these business owners, many of the issues we present in the workshops they may not be thinking about.”

Before entering a neighborhood, the Lawyers’ Committee does “underground research” to find out if the small business community has a need and interest for law-related outreach. For Mattapan, the demographics made it clear the area would be a fruitful place for a new partnership.

“It just seems like there’s a great desire for people in that community in particular to start businesses or to better their businesses,” Sommer said. “So there’s a great interest, and at the same time there’s a lack of resources. It’s really hard for anyone who’s starting out to afford an attorney.”

In other neighborhoods, the sessions have proved to be very popular, with 15-25 people in attendance at each. After attending the workshop, attendees with particular issues seeking out continued legal help can apply for a clinic, where those who meet income qualifications can sit with an attorney for 30-45 minutes to receive advice. In addition to workshops and free representation, EJP also partners with community development organizations to give entrepreneurs help on accounting and business plans, at a low cost or sometimes free of charge.

For many of the lawyers taking part in the project, the workshops and clinics serve as a welcome retreat away from the desk and into the city.

“Our attorneys really, really love it, because it gives them an opportunity to work with clients that are just starting out, that are often just entrepreneurs with fantastic ideas,” Sommer said.

After the trial of the initial workshop and clinic session, Pepper Hamilton’s lawyers hope their efforts will translate into a long-term partnership between their firm and the small business owners in the Mattapan and Haitian communities, in which they offer workshops on a regular basis.

Robert Chow, an attorney at the Boston branch of Pepper Hamilton, said besides giving assistance to low-income entrepreneurs, the Economic Justice Project also helps break down common misconceptions about lawyers.

“I think there’s this perception that lawyers are all about making money,” he said, “but I think many people that go to law school and become lawyers, they want the opportunity to give back to the community and provide some service.”

For more information on the workshop, contact Vladimir Jeune at vjeune@lawyerscom.org or 617-988-0601.