Lawyers give back with black business law clinic
By Neil Armstrong
An initiative of two black lawyers, in partnership with Pro Bono Ontario (PBO), to assist black-owned enterprises through a business law clinic is creating a favourable buzz among many fellow lawyers, entrepreneurs, and community members.
They hope that the momentum is sustained and that businesses will take advantage of this unique opportunity.
The PBO-Black Business Law Clinic was officially launched on September 26 with a reception and information session for potential volunteers at the offices of the law firm, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, on the 44th floor of Scotia Plaza in Toronto.
The idea for such a clinic is the brainchild of lawyers, Michelle Henry, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and Anthony Stephen Benjamin of Benjamin Law who thought about this last year.
“We started thinking about the needs in the community, what areas we thought we could provide practical advice in and keep it to the business side as opposed to litigation,” said Henry, noting they wanted to help businesses with incorporation contracts, leases and those things.
Earlier this year they approached Pro Bono Ontario about the creation of a business law clinic dedicated to serving the GTA’s Black community by providing pro bono business-oriented legal services to small businesses and non-profit organizations who cannot afford a lawyer.
Pro Bono Ontario agreed to coordinate the creation of the clinic as a new project and will offer ongoing support to it as a corporate project.
Starting a new business is a difficult process for anyone, regardless of background or experience.
This process can be even more complex for visible minorities who have little access to experienced professionals willing to provide them with the appropriate advice and guidance.
As a result, only a small percentage of these businesses are familiar with the legal requirements needed to operate in Ontario or mitigate their exposure.
With respect to the GTA’s Black community, despite being a major ethno-cultural group in the GTA, there are only a few initiatives that are focused on assisting members of this group transition into successful small business owners or effective non-profit organizations.
Further, there has never been free, early level, legal supports available to support these new businesses and organizations.
Henry said the reception from businesses and organization in the Black community to the initiative has been extremely positive.
“The reaction is: Can we have it outside of Toronto? Is it just Toronto? I think the ultimate response has been it’s needed in the community, it’s something that’s long overdue and it’s about time,” she said.
Benjamin said they are trying to give black businesses a mechanism whereby they could get off the ground in a practical way and follow the legal procedures that are available.
“Because too often black businesses start off on their own and they make a million missteps, so we’re trying to see if we can start off from the beginning helping them with the corporate structure, helping them with whatever agreements they need, and also giving them foresight, in terms of how to structure their business, understand their markets and how to go about raising capital, getting the infrastructure in place, getting contracts,” said Benjamin.
He said they are trying to get lawyers, not only black lawyers, but lawyers from across Ontario with specialized skill set for the Black community.
“I, particularly, would like to help our young community participate in the new economy, with respect to IT, so people need copyright advice, patent, trademarks, advice on IT laws and that sort of thing. The commercial firms downtown are willing to provide that advice for free to get businesses off the ground. So our community is getting first class advice for free,” said Benjamin.
Starting January 2017, PBO will launch the satellite clinic that will run one Saturday a month in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood at his law offices -- Benjamin Law at 1018 Finch Avenue West, Suite 301.
But right now, lawyers can volunteer to participate in the Pro Bono Ontario Corporate Law Clinic. The clinic runs three (3) nights a week between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. at 393 University Avenue. Volunteers are scheduled once per quarter.
They can also help create public legal education videos (approx. 15 minutes in length) for small business owners. PBO will help coordinate and produce the videos and make then accessible online. Each video will feature both the lawyers name and firms’ name, if desired.
Using their unique skills, volunteer corporate lawyers will be able to assist eligible clients with a broad range of corporate, employment, contract, real estate, licensing and other business, commercial and regulatory matters.
These volunteers will play an important role in community economic development by assisting individuals to build a strong foundation for their organizations to grow and thrive.
This will have a long-term benefit not only for the individuals served directly, but also for our communities.
Lawyers can sign up to volunteer at the clinic through its online portal and will be scheduled by PBO staff.
They should visit: https://www.pbovolunteers.org/ to sign up. As a PBO project all volunteer lawyers are covered under PBO’s Law Pro policy.
PBO will be responsible for the coordination of clients and volunteers.
In low-income communities, small businesses provide fundamental skills, create jobs and help generate wealth so that vulnerable Ontarians can build secure and productive lives.
Henry, Benjamin and Matthew Wiens, director of corporate projects for Pro Bono Ontario, were enthusiastic about the ten calls – potential clients -- Pro Bono Ontario received after they appeared on a radio show at G98.7 FM on September 25.
“I think as more people reach out, hopefully through Pride and the other media and they reach out to other communities hopefully people will access the service – it’s free. Some of these lawyers bill $750 an hour and people are getting it for free,” said Benjamin.
He said to find the clinic people would go online at Pro Bono Ontario and there would be a link to fill out a form which can then be and submitted.
Talking about corporate pro bono, Wiens said Pro Bono Ontario has been around for 15 years and help, on average, 20,000 clients each year through its various projects.
“When we were talking about this project in the early stages what we really wanted to focus on with all of our new projects with the mandate is “smallest commitment, largest impact,” smallest commitment from you, making sure it’s organized, making sure you have all the support you need and the largest impact for the clients that are actually getting these services.”
He said the corporate law clinic was launched five months ago and in that time it has helped over 500 small businesses get legal advice.
“These businesses that are coming through are incredible. They’re people that are working two jobs but they’re trying to start something on their own. They’re tired of working two jobs; they want to build their own business. University students who have ideas greater than I can ever dream of and are making them happen but just couldn’t afford to get early level legal support. They don’t necessarily understand the sort of business and legal side, how much they go together.”
Anyone with questions about the PBO-Black Business Law Clinic can contact Matthew Wiens, director of corporate projects for Pro Bono Ontario, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 416-597-0770 ext. 927.