Sonora Grill: How Microentrepreneurs Create a Thriving Small Business with Business Law Pro Bono Help

This is the last of a four part series of pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. 

SonoraGrill2

Over the past four years, a team of business law lawyers from Minneapolis, Minnesota have helped two friends, Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Paredes, start and grow their successful restaurant concept. Today, Sonora Grill operates in two locations and employs more than 40 people. When the friends originally teamed up with their business law pro bono legal team, however, the friends had no money and little more than a business plan and a dream of opening a fast-casual food stall located in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis serving a fusion of Spanish and South American cuisine with influences from Alejandro’s and Conrado’s native Sonora, Mexico. Located in a repurposed former Sears store, Minneapolis Midtown Global Market is an internationally themed market with groceries, food and gifts. According to its own literature the Midtown Global Market gives new and emerging entrepreneurs, many of whom are low income and recent immigrants, a prime location and support to build a business and future – for themselves, their families, and their employees at the same time making the surrounding neighborhood safer and healthier.

Much like any other start-up business enterprise, these micro-entrepreneurial friends needed to consider and understand the tax and legal implications of their business enterprise. During the business formation process, pro bono business lawyers worked closely with Alejandro and Conrado on entity selection and formation issues along with joint ownership and tax issues. Recognizing the importance of educating the new entrepreneurs on the legal risks and obligations of business ownership, the pro bono lawyers counseled the pair on the details of limited liability, maintaining corporate formalities, and keeping accurate records. In addition, the pro bono lawyers counseled the pair on all the legal and tax implications of operating a for-profit business that employed people and sold goods and services into the stream of commerce. These issues included sales and use tax; local, state and federal employment law and tax law issues; as well as legal issues related to equipment acquisition and financing. Once the new business enterprise was incorporated, Alejandro and Conradro hit the ground running, with their highly successful Sonora Grill food stall receiving much acclaim for its food as well as its contributions back to the community.

With one successful location operating, Alejandro and Conrado turned their sights to an even more ambitious dream: owning a full-service sit-down restaurant serving upscale food and beverages. They turned back to their one-time pro bono business law lawyers for assistance with the new concept and location. Although opening a second location was a great opportunity, the pro bono business law lawyers counseled the pair on the need to protect themselves and the first location from any liability that could arise out of the operation of the second location. After much discussion and weighing different options, a second entity was formed for the second location.

Because the second location, unlike the first, was to be a full-service sit-down restaurant with a full-service bar, Alejandro and Conrado needed to lease a new space for the restaurant and hire many more employees. Several pro bono real estate lawyers worked closely with Alejandro, Conrado and the landlord to reach agreement on building out the new space, an agreeable rental price, and protecting the new restaurant from any issues with the space. The real estate attorneys, relying on their experience representing a national restaurant chain in complex lease issues, were able to negotiate favorable lease terms with specific provisions for operating a restaurant at the location. After many months of planning and renovations, a second Sonora Grill location opened in 2013. What was once a long-vacant building is now home to a vibrant business that employs more than 40 people and has contributed to the revitalization of the Midtown neighborhood in Minneapolis.

Alejandro and Conrado have enjoyed much success as both business owners and entrepreneurs. Sonora Grill recently won the 2014 Employment Impact Award from the Neighborhood Development Center, a community and economic development organization based in Minneapolis, recognizing the job-creation efforts of the business and its owners. Both Sonora Grill locations have received high praise from customers, critics, and the local media. Fredrikson attorneys continue to work with Alejandro and Conrado on Sonora Grill day-to-day legal issues and hope to be part of their next endeavor on a billable basis.

Tom Archbold, a corporate and commercial law lawyer, worked closely with Alejandro and Conrado. “It has been very rewarding for me as a business lawyer to work with Alejandro and Conrado as they initially started their Sonora Grill restaurant and then again when they expanded to a second, larger location,” Mr. Archbold said. “Alejandro and Conrado have a great concept, an entrepreneurial spirit, and they have worked very hard to develop their business. I’m very proud to have been a part of the process.” Business law attorneys work on complex transactional matters every day, but for many none are more rewarding than helping their pro bono clients achieve their dreams, build businesses, and achieve sustaining economic and personal success.

Levi Smith is a corporate attorney at Fredrikson & Byron, P.A. and a 2014 graduate from the University of Michigan Law School.

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From Gang Member to Executive Director of a Nonprofit: Business Law Pro Bono at Work

This week, we’ll be posting pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. 

Untitled

Pro bono clients come in with all manners of needs. While many clients need assistance for themselves or their families, some clients, including those who want to start a nonprofit, want to help others. One such client, Latriste Graham, is one of those rare individuals who have been able to overcome adversity, learn from it, and make a direct, positive impact on others. Her story began when she was born into a gang family on the west side of Chicago. Her family life was rough, and she started drinking and doing drugs early. She became a prostitute by age 15, a gang leader at age 16, a mom at age 18, and by age 23, a felon. Drug and alcohol treatments failed, until Latriste decided to turn it around. In 2007 Latriste got clean, moved to Minnesota and started a program assisting other women escape prostitution, a form of human trafficking.

Latriste began her journey with a business law pro bono lawyer at a MicroGrants awards celebration event in 2012. MicroGrants provides micro-grants to low-income individuals to spur economic self-sufficiency. Prior to connecting with a pro bono business lawyer, Latriste had started her enterprise as an individual without any sort of entity or nonprofit organization. Latriste just wanted to help others escape the horrors that she herself had endured. That evening she was being honored for taking her $1,000 micro-grant and using it to make a positive impact in the community.

Up until the time of the award, Latriste’s work to rescue women from prostitution had been a one-woman job. She would drive to Chicago four times a year in her van, where she would pay gang members $20 each to protect her as she used a bullhorn to yell at the johns, and tell the women she encountered on the street that she could offer a way to escape the violence that surrounded them. Often she would bring the women she had rescued from prostitution back to Minnesota. Once back in Minnesota, Latriste and the women she had convinced to leave a life of prostitution were dependent on local ministries and others for funds to pay for gas and clothing that these women needed to make a fresh start.

While accepting her award at the MicroGrants celebration, Latriste mentioned that the next step in her journey was to start a nonprofit so she could help more women. Of course, she had no funds to pay a lawyer to do the work, and navigating the complexities of forming a nonprofit corporation, putting a board together and filing for tax-exempt status were beyond her capacity. Imagine her surprise when she was offered pro bono legal services to do just that!

Latriste’s project was staffed by two pro bono service providers: Jessica Manivasager, a lawyer whose practice focused on business and tax planning as well as nonprofit organizations and Erik Beitzel, a volunteer law student from the University of St. Thomas School of Law who was serving as a pro bono intern through a pro bono volunteer program. Initially, Jessica was hesitant to take on Latriste’s project because she was trying to focus her pro bono work on low-income entrepreneurs instead of start-up nonprofit organizations. Like many long-term business law pro bono volunteers, Jessica had formed more than her share of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. But Latriste’s story was different. Here was a disadvantaged person looking to use all that she had to help others escape poverty, gang violence and prostitution.

Together Jessica and Erik guided Latriste through the legal formation and tax exempt application process and Latriste’s nonprofit organization, Coming Out of Bondage, was formed. Working as pro bono mentor-mentee team, Jessica was able to provide Erik with the practical instruction and guidance he needed as a law student to provide assistance to Latriste. This mentored pro bono approach to client service results in a multiplying pro bono impact whereby one “generation” of business law pro bono practitioner provides the practical training a law student who wants to practice in the area of business law desperately needs to become practice ready while time providing a client with additional pro bono client resources.

Even after formation, Latriste and Coming Out of Bondage have continued to need business law pro bono legal assistance relating to the business and governance needs of the organization. Latriste has been able to raise funds to continue and expand her work. Besides taking women off the streets and giving them the tools they need to recover and succeed, she is a local resource for women and others who are victims of sex trafficking.

Jessica’s own words best express the impact of this client’s story: “After meeting with Latriste and hearing her story, I was committed to helping her form a nonprofit entity that would allow her to continue her work and expand her program. It did not take a great amount of time on my part to guide her through this process. I enjoyed the work; Erik had the opportunity to work with a wonderful client, and Latriste was extremely grateful for the assistance. Knowing I played a small part in this dynamic woman’s mission to help others is tremendously satisfying as a lawyer.”

Pamela J. Wandzel is Pro Bono Manager at the law firm Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.

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Appetite For Change: Business Law Pro Bono from the Client’s Perspective

This week, we’ll be posting pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. 

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Appetite For Change (AFC) just celebrated the beginning of its fifth year of service to the North Minneapolis community. It’s been one wild ride, but without business law pro bono legal help, the road we’ve travelled would have been a lot bumpier.

AFC is a 501(c)(3) food justice social enterprise headquartered in North Minneapolis (Northside). Our neighborhood is one of the most culturally rich, yet challenged, parts of the Twin Cities. AFC’s mission is to use food as a tool for building health, wealth and social change. AFC uses food as a vehicle to organize the Northside community and to create the change that Northsiders want to see in their food environment and policies. Healthy, nutritious food options are generally lacking in the Northside food environment, perpetuating longstanding inequities that disproportionately burden the Northside’s predominantly African-American community. AFC is working to change that. We offer traditional programming like cooking, nutrition and gardening workshops, urban agriculture and leadership development activities in the realm of food policy and advocacy. Our vision is that every Northside child will have the opportunity to grow up healthy and happy in their own community.

I started AFC in 2011, motivated by my passion for food, social justice and the inspiration I gained from becoming a mother. I hoped to teach other young mothers how to prepare nutritious and delicious foods using urban-farmed produce while building community with one another. When I started AFC I was a “recovering public defender” and I had little professional experience in non-profit and business management. Fortunately, I surrounded myself with talented people whose passion for AFC’s mission matched my own. In 2012, I met Princess Titus and Latasha Powell, women with strong ties to the Northside community. We partnered to expand AFC’s reach and to grow the organization.

In late 2014, AFC’s growth required us to find new space. Up to that point, our staff of six had been sharing a single 250 square foot office in a local church. Moreover, by expanding into the new space we had identified, AFC could bring a long-time Northside goal to fruition: starting a soul-food fusion restaurant in an area with very few “real food” options. There were a number of very complex legal issues standing between us and the space we wanted. As part of the lease AFC would be required to take over of an existing commercial kitchen incubator business—Kindred Kitchen—that had been operated by the building owner. We also planned to build a new café in an empty space next to the kitchen. Moreover, we encountered legal issues relating to prior grant funding and program-related investments connected to the property. While our lease negotiations were ongoing, we realized that we also needed to refine our governing documents. We needed to amend our Articles of Incorporation to expand our charitable purpose and we needed to restate our bylaws to adopt a governance structure befitting AFC’s growth.

I knew that AFC needed to do these projects right. Needless to say, my experience as a public defender did not quite prepare me to solve legal puzzles involving commercial real estate and complex corporate governance. We needed help.

Enter our business law pro bono legal team. I reached out to Fredrikson & Byron, a full service law firm, for AFC’s pro bono legal needs. I was connected with a shareholder in the firm’s real estate group who negotiated AFC’s new lease. Although the deal involved only 5,000 square feet of commercial real estate, the lease took over nine months to finalize because of the complications involved. This real estate legal expertise was crucial to resolving those challenges. I was also introduced to a business lawyer who had extensive experience in both for-profit and nonprofit governance and structuring as well as social enterprise. An entire legal team helped us to restate AFC’s articles and bylaws, structure the relationship between AFC, the cafe and Kindred Kitchen as well as draft a lease for use with our tenants at Kindred Kitchen.

Our business law pro bono team helped AFC lay the groundwork for expansion, and AFC has grown by leaps and bounds. In four short years we have expanded from a tiny nonprofit into a burgeoning social venture that is leading the Northside food justice movement and bringing major economic development to a marginalized commercial corridor in the city of Minneapolis. We moved into our new office space. We doubled our budget from $500,000 in 2014 to over $1,000,000 this year. Our pro bono partnership with our business law lawyers has also facilitated opportunities to collaborate with other Northside organizations like the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON).

On April 29th, 2015, AFC opened Breaking Bread Café and Catering and since that time have already hosted a pop-up restaurant with one of NEON’s start-up business clients. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges spoke at the Café’s grand opening, as did celebrity chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern. As part of his remarks Zimmern applauded the AFC-Breaking Bread endeavor as an entrepreneurial catalyst and a space for community to join together sharing a meal. Mayor Hodges said of AFC and Breaking Bread, “This is the future of Minneapolis.”

As much as AFC has grown in the past year, we expect to grow even more in the near future. Just three weeks after we opened Breaking Bread, AFC secured a small business loan from The Nonprofits Assistance Fund and City Planning and Economic Development. We have hired thirteen new full time staff for the kitchen and Café, almost all of whom are members of the Northside community. In June 2015 AFC will launch a kick starter campaign to raise funds for a new youth training and employment program, which will allow us to expand the Café and catering operation still further. Fourteen of the top chefs in the Twin Cities have donated culinary experiences as rewards for this campaign. AFC has been featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and on various local television news programs. The business law pro bono legal assistance we received helped make this transformation possible.

Michelle Horovitz is a recovering public defender and Co-founder and Executive Director of Appetite For Change

Matthew Stortz is an attorney at Fredrikson & Byron where he practices as a corporate and tax associate and is a proud member of the Appetite for Change legal team.

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Business Law Pro Bono: How Business Law Lawyers Contribute to Economic Justice

Kimberly A. Lowe

Kimberly A. Lowe

“Pro bono service has to become as much a part of our substantive efforts as corporate law, tax law, real estate law and all of the other aspects of law that form part of our business law practice.
–Joseph Mullaney, General Counsel of Gillette Company

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Business law lawyers often feel challenged to provide pro bono legal services within their legal practice area. In an effort to increase the number of pro bono volunteers, many pro bono organizations and professionals claim (and in some instances proclaim) how much business law lawyers grow when they “step out of their comfort zone” and tackle litigation based pro bono cases. Most business law lawyers (myself included) take offense to the suggestion we somehow need to grow. Instead of encouraging a business law lawyer to grow experientially through litigation based pro bono, we should encourage each business law lawyer to use his or her legal skills to meet the ethical obligations of ABA Model Rule 6.1 which encourages every lawyer to provide pro bono legal services to “persons of limited means or . . . charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means.” A business law lawyer need not depart from his and her practice area in order to meet this obligation. Assisting a client of limited means in obtaining economic justice (or a nonprofit organization assisting their clients to do the same) is just as laudable as battling on behalf of a client of limited means in a court of law.

Put most simply, economic justice involves the laws and institutions that determine how each person earns a living, enters into contracts, exchanges goods and services with others and otherwise produces an independent material foundation for his or her economic sustenance. While the economic justice system includes multiple interfaces with the law, very few of these encounters involve the court system. Who is better equipped than a highly trained business law lawyer to assist persons of limited means in navigating and succeeding in the economic justice system? The business law section created its own pro bono committee in 1993.

While business law lawyers are well equipped to help pro bono clients navigate the economic justice system, finding eligible pro bono clients poses a challenge. There are no courthouse steps where people of limited means line up pro se to battle the economic justice system. Connecting business law lawyers who want to provide pro bono legal services within the business law context with potential pro bono clients is less direct than a self-help desk at the court house.

In keeping with Model Rule 6.1, in his 2002 law review article entitled Fulfilling the Promise of Business Law Pro Bono, James Baillie, a one-time chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Public Service Responsibility and the Business Law Section’s Pro Bono Committee, outlined a path for business law lawyers to provide business law pro bono. Mr. Baillie generally defined business law pro bono to include any legal services in the broad category of business law (as contrasted with litigation) provided to any person or entities that need legal services on a pro bono basis. Mr. Baillie stated that “the recipients of these services can, for the most part, be divided into two broad categories: nonprofits and microenterprises.”

Since business law pro bono is by definition provided to persons or entities that are participating in the stream of commerce, one critical component of business law pro bono is making sure the clients being served actually cannot afford to pay for the legal services provided. Given the diversity of the lawyers in the legal profession and the clients served, one lawyer’s pro bono client could be another lawyer’s paying client. Means testing business law pro bono clients is just as important as means testing any other pro bono client.

Determining the personal economic means or an individual who desire to start a microenterprise or who needs assistance with a business law issue related to an existing microenterprise is fairly straight forward. The same can actually be said for nonprofit organizations. According to Marcia Levy, the Executive Director of Pro Bono Partnership: “in evaluating whether we can represent a nonprofit that otherwise meets our mission-based criteria, we look at whether the organization can afford legal representation without significantly impacting their resources for services. It is a means test, but one with flexibility based on the totality of the circumstances, including whether they have a paid relationship with a lawyer or law firm.”

While the theoretical and professionalism aspects of business law pro bono are critical, the impact business law pro bono legal services and how a business lawyer can make a difference in the lives of people of limited means is really what matters. Gary Connelley, Pro Bono Counsel for Crowley Fleck PLLP, a regional firm with offices in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, said it best: “As far as the impact, we often get feedback from the organizations on the value of our services to their clients, but not much from the clients of those organizations directly. I just spoke with one of our senior partners who has done considerable work with Tumbleweed, especially negotiating a lease from the county for an overnight shelter for homeless teens. When I asked him about the impact of that work on him, he just mentioned that knowing there were now beds (where there were none before) for teens who would otherwise be under the bridges, vulnerable to sexual predators, was a source of pride and great satisfaction to him.”

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This week, we’ll be posting pro bono client stories that show how business law lawyers have helped people struggling to participate in the market economy obtain economic justice or at least access to economic justice through direct legal services to people and/or or nonprofit organizations of limited means who provide services to individuals of limited means. Check back tomorrow for our first of three pro bono stories.

Kimberly Lowe is a business law lawyer with the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis where she focuses her practice on both for-profit and nonprofit organizations as well as public and private cooperatives and social enterprises.

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Seeing Black: Unconscious Bias and Pro Bono Lawyers

Lillian Moy

Lillian Moy

The events of the last year in Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore have focused the public and the legal community on racism and unconscious bias in the criminal justice system, particularly in policing. Seeing Black, an article by Jennifer Eberhardt and three other psychologists, discusses their research and findings that many law enforcement officers “see black” resulting in their unconsciously seeing criminal activity and criminal defendants. It’s not much of a leap to conclude that others in the justice system, including lawyers, also unconsciously and automatically “see black.” and may make negative judgments about key aspects of our work, e.g., the credibility of your client or a key witness.

I cannot explain unconscious or implicit bias in this blog. I commend to you this video which talks about one community’s study of implicit bias and their attempts to mitigate bias in their juvenile justice system. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Juvenile Justice System, the community — including judges, guardians ad litem, social services, law enforcement and court personnel — have banded together to raise awareness of the disproportionate negative treatment of people of color and provide training to mitigate implicit bias in their system. This is just one example of how lawyers can mitigate the impact unconscious bias can have on our practice and courts. We should all try to find ways we can do the same in the legal systems and courts in which we practice.

If you have never taken the Implicit Bias test, please go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/
implicit/selectatest.html You can pick a bias to explore: weight, race, sexual orientation, religion, gender. We have grown up learning, developing and strengthening automatic connections between words, characteristics, values and beliefs. These automatic connections do not necessarily produce acts of overt or explicit bias towards blacks, poor people or any other groups of people of color. They do, however, make it easy to, in varying degrees, automatically associate people of color or poor people with negative traits, characteristics or actions. These implicit or unconscious biases greatly color the actions we take, the determinations we make and the way we see and represent clients or make decisions about how to handle their cases.

As a pro bono volunteer, you may see that you are working in a legal system that has historically under-served and denied justice to people of color and those who are poor. I ask you to consider what we as pro bono and legal aid leaders can do to raise understanding about unconscious and implicit bias in the legal system. I hope we start talking about it. Without shining the light on implicit bias, we cannot change our biases – or affect their disproportionate negative impact in our courts on people of color. Many of us have already called upon our local police departments to increase implicit bias training so that they can understand and work to change biases that are, with support, training and understanding, indeed malleable. We should do the same.

I call upon you as legal aid and pro bono lawyers to take the Implicit Association Test on race, to talk about your results, to examine data, to call for implicit bias training, and to shine the light on how unconscious and implicit bias affects us as lawyers and decision makers in the civil and criminal court systems. Will you?

Lillian M. Moy is Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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Toaster, elevator, hula hoop and air conditioning

centerforprobono:

Wonderful musings on innovation and adaptation.

Originally posted on Lawscape:

I just returned from the American Bar Association Equal Justice Conference. I felt a bit agitated. I guess that’s the right word. It’s a feeling I always get at the end of several days of exchanging thought-provoking ideas and discussing new ways to look at our work.

I lean slightly toward the techno-geek side of the spectrum. Some of you don’t know that. Many of you laugh that I felt I had to articulate that.

I favored sessions at the conference that covered technology and legal services delivery. It makes me crazy to see the astounding things that my colleagues are doing to advance access to justice through innovative tech. I always hope some of their passion will rub off on me, and that maybe some fantastic innovative process will suddenly map itself out completely in my brain before I leave. But, as I always say, I’m not real bright…

View original 499 more words

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Upper Midwest Inventor Assistance Program to Expand Access to Pro Bono Patent Services

Upper Midwest Inventor Assistance Program to Expand Access to Pro Bono Patent Services in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin

In 2011, the William Mitchell College of Law’s IP Law Clinic partnered with the LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program (IAP), the first formal pro bono program in the country dedicated to pairing low-income inventors with volunteer patent attorneys in Minnesota.  This partnership has been marked with success in only its first four years, with more than 60 inventors receiving pro bono assistance related to their inventions and patent applications and 15 patents formally granted.

In 2012, Section 32 of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act mandated that the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) support the formation of additional patent pro bono programs across the nation. As a result of this mandate and the early success in Minnesota, William Mitchell and LegalCORPS were recently selected to help launch similar programs in the neighboring upper Midwestern states of Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

On April 20, 2015, William Mitchell and LegalCORPS will formally launch the Upper Midwest Inventor Assistance Program (IAP) with a celebration at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Invitees to the celebration include policy makers, business leaders, members of the judiciary, and attorneys who have or would like to volunteer for the program.  The day will begin with a morning orientation session for volunteer patent attorneys, followed by a luncheon at noon. The celebration continues at 1:30pm with a panel discussion on policy issues surrounding access to the patent system, specifically the advancement of women in IP practice.  The panelists include Denise DeFranco, AIPLA President-Elect and Partner at Finnegan, Hendersen, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner; Lisa Dunner, ABA IP Law Section Chair and Managing Partner at Dunner Law PLLC; Angela Grayson, Associate General Counsel, IP, at Walmart Stores, Inc.; and Doris Hines Johnson, Partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garret & Dunner; and will be moderated by Amy Salmela, Partner at Patterson Thuente IP.

A reception will follow the panel discussion at 3 p.m., featuring distinguished guests from Congress and USPTO, including Representative Keith Ellison, Representative Tom Emmer, USPTO Chief of Staff Andrew Byrnes, and USPTO Pro Bono Coordinator Jennifer McDowell.

The Upper Midwest IAP will be led by Professor Jay Erstling at William Mitchell in cooperation with Gillian Rosenquist, Administrator of the LegalCORPS IAP.  The Upper Midwest IAP will match low income inventors (i.e., those with income not more than 300% of federal poverty guidelines) in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin with volunteer patent attorneys for patent prosecution assistance. This has been an area of need for years, as low income inventors have had a difficult time finding needed assistance and representation with limited resources.  At the same time, many patent attorneys have been eager to find ways to give back to the community while practicing in their area of expertise.  A pool of volunteer patent attorneys is already available in Minnesota, though the Upper Midwest IAP is seeking volunteer patent attorneys to assist inventors in the four expansion states. The Upper Midwest IAP manages the volunteer attorney roster, conducts orientations for inventors and volunteer attorneys, and provides general support, information and outreach to the independent inventor community and volunteer attorneys.  It is the ultimate goal of the Upper Midwest IAP to transition the program into the care of each individual state.

The April 20 event at William Mitchell College of Law is free and open to the public. More information about WMIAP and the launch event can be found at http://www.wmitchell/edu/intellectual-property/inventors.

Katherine Janssen and Kirk Olimb are students at William Mitchell College of Law. Amy Salmela is a partner at the law firm Patterson Thuente IP.

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Adding Online Pro Bono to Your Access to Justice Toolkit

George "Buck" Lewis

George “Buck” Lewis

Trends favoring online pro bono

A 2013 study done by the Pew Research Center indicates that 85% of American adults are internet users and that 70% of American adults have some sort of high-speed internet connection in their home. As of 2013, sixty-four percent of households with incomes between $20-$30,000 have internet accessibility and fifty-four percent of households with incomes between $10-$20,000 had internet access (as of the 2013 study). The Pew study showed a dramatic increase in smart phone ownership just in the two year period between May, 2011 and May, 2013, so these numbers probably underestimate present internet access via smart phone usage as of the spring, 2015.

The trends are clearly in favor of increased internet usage. There is no reason to believe that use of the internet for requesting and receiving legal advice will not continue to grow with every passing year. It is also clear that although limited scope advice, whether provided in a walk-in clinic, a telephone bank, or over the internet, is no substitute for unlimited scope representation, limited scope advice can provide an invaluable tool to low income residents who cannot possibly afford a lawyer.

History of interactive pro bono websites in the U.S.

We know from experience that interactive websites can successfully help thousands of low income citizens. For the last four years, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and Tennessee Bar Association has operated an interactive pro bono website entitled www.ONLINETNJUSTICE.org. On this website, volunteer lawyers sign up to provide pro bono legal answers to low-income families across Tennessee. The site has helped over 8,000 clients since it was launched in 2011. Since 2011, the states of Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and West Virginia have launched similar interactive pro bono websites, using the same software. Those sites have operated under the respective names of www.Alabamalegalanswers.org, www.Indianalegalanswers.org, www.MNlegaladvice.org, www.SClawanswers.org and www.WVonlinelegalhelp.org. Our firm owns the rights to the software and licenses it to responsible organizations for free under a licensing agreement.

Benefits to lawyer volunteers

The experience in Tennessee and in the other states which have launched interactive websites has been that these websites provide a significant benefit to lawyers. Government and corporate lawyers, who have difficulty providing pro bono in the public arena, are able to provide pro bono services online. Senior lawyers who no longer have a traditional practice are grateful to have the opportunity to use their considerable experience for the benefit of low income clients. Lawyers who are disabled or are on family or medical leave or who have taken a break from traditional practice to assume child-rearing responsibilities, are also happy to have the opportunity to continue to use their skills for the benefit of low income clients. Lawyers also like the fact that they can do pro bono any time of the day or night in any location with internet access. On the internet, lawyers can do pro bono while they sit with their children, while in a doctor’s waiting room, an airport gate, or while riding in a car, bus or train. These sites would also provide opportunities for law student/lawyer collaborations.

The experience in all the states which have launched these sites so far has shown that this online pro bono tool is an important part of the mosaic of pro bono services lawyers can render in carrying out the highest ideals of our profession.

Benefits to low-income clients

The benefits to clients are obvious. Clients in rural areas with very few if any lawyers in their area or in urban areas where the clinics are difficult to attend can get access to advice. In Tennessee, for example, we have had many heart-warming stories about clients who have been able to remain in their homes by asserting their statutory and common law rights they learned about online, clients who have struck better compromise arrangements with creditors as a result of understanding their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or federal bankruptcy laws and, of course, clients who have received advice on how to find unlimited scope representation for matters of critical importance such as child custody and conservatorship. Often it is more difficult to create public awareness of a local limited scope clinic than to create public awareness about the existence of a website. Having one web portal allows public awareness to be promoted on a state-wide basis. Of course, a pro bono website is there 24/7/365 for clients – a walk in clinic may not be held but once a month or even once a quarter.

Presently, in addition to Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and West Virginia, we have signed licensing agreements with Arizona, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Montana. Also, the ABA Pro Bono Committee is in the process of exploring the feasibility of a national pro bono website to which all states would have access. If you are interested in launching a site in your state and/or if you would be interested in having your state participate in a national site, please contact me at blewis@bakerdonelson.com or Samantha Sanchez at the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services at ssanchez@tals.org.

George “Buck” Lewis is a partner at the law firm Baker Donelson and chair of the firm’s Appellate Practice Litigation Group. Mr. Lewis is the past president of the Memphis Bar Foundation, the Tennessee Bar Association, and the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. He’s a recipient of the ABA Presidential Citation for Access to Justice and inaugural Justice Janice Holder Award from Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. Mr. Lewis is a current member of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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Pro Bono Effect: Making Better Lawyers and a Better Community

A great read about IP lawyers engaging in pro bono work: Pro Bono Effect: Making Better Lawyers and a Better Community.

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TRI-STATE Patent Pro Bono Program to Launch in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut

The Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York is launching the expansion of its Patent Pro Bono Program to include New Jersey and Connecticut with a kick-off event on February 10th, 2015, at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in New York City.  The Patent Pro Bono Program will match low-income inventors in the tri-state area with volunteer patent attorneys registered to practice before the USPTO to provide patent prosecution counsel and assistance.

This is only the first of three Patent Pro Bono Programs to launch this month.  On February 17th, Georgia PATENTS (Pro bono Assistance & Training for Entrepreneurs and New, Talented, Solo inventors) will have its kick-off event in Atlanta at Alston & Byrd.  Georgia PATENTS is facilitated by the Georgia Lawyers for the Arts with support from the State Bar of Georgia and the Intellectual Property Sections of the State Bar of Georgia and the Atlanta Bar.

A Patent Pro Bono Program in the Midwest will follow shortly thereafter on February 19th in St Louis.  Gateway VMS and the State Bar of Missouri will debut the program, with the support from Husch Blackwell and Lewis Rice Fingerish.  The Missouri based program will provide patent pro bono coverage for five states, including Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

The launch of programs in New York, Georgia, and Missouri follows the success of the first Patent Pro Bono Program, a pilot program that launched in Minnesota in 2011.  Since then, Minnesota’s LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program (IAP) has matched volunteer patent attorneys with over 60 Minnesota inventors, including 15 inventors who have been granted patents and many others with pending patent applications.  From Minnesota to Georgia, and from California to Connecticut, the interest and encouragement of the USPTO have been key components to the successful establishment of these patent pro bono programs.

“The USPTO is thrilled with the expansion of the Patent Pro Bono Program,” said Jennifer McDowell, USPTO Pro Bono Coordinator.  “Local innovation supports the local economy and these programs will help ensure that inventors have access to patent counsel, which is so critical to the success of their businesses.”  Currently, only five states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, and Indiana) remain without Patent Pro Bono Program coverage.  However, partners in those states are very close to establishing programs so that residents in all 50 states can take advantage of this tremendous opportunity.

Support from the ABA, including the Intellectual Property Law and Business Law Sections and their members, and advice from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono, also have been critical to the establishment and success of these patent pro bono programs.  The patent bar has truly heeded President Obama’s call to action on this initiative.  For more information about the patent pro bono programs or to volunteer with a program in your area, please contact McDowell at Jennifer.Mcdowell@uspto.gov, or Amy Salmela, ABA Intellectual Property Law Section Pro Bono Committee Chair, at salmela@ptslaw.com.

Co-authors Jennifer McDowell and Amy Salmela have been closely involved in the development of the Patent Pro Bono Program, which was initiated in 2011 as a result of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act to establish programs to provide free legal assistance to under-resourced inventors interested in securing patent protection for their inventions.

USPTO Official Portrait of Jennifer McDowell a Michael A. Cleveland Portrait 10-6-2014

Jennifer McDowell is an Attorney with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

AmySalmela

Amy Salmela is a partner with Patterson Thuente IP

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