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. 


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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