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Low-income entrepreneurs get boost from Legal Services

Syrian immigrants. Ex-convicts. Recent graduates of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Tracy James outlines services for low-income entrepreneurs through Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Community Economic Development office.

Tracy James outlines services for low-income entrepreneurs through Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Community Economic Development office.

These are the varied kinds of clients who recently needed help with the legalities of launching a small business — and they got that help, thanks to attorneys working pro bono through Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

They shared their success stories and other data in January at the Forum on Access to Justice during Legal Services Corporation’s board of directors quarterly meeting, held at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

According to presenter Tracy James, managing attorney of LSEM’s Community Economic Development office, more than 330 pro bono attorneys have provided legal assistance to almost 1,000 low-income entrepreneurs since the office’s microenterprise program began in 2011. Approximately 90 percent of these clients were minorities, and most were women.

James says her program offers three main services. First is community presentations. Past topics have included, for example, the difference between an employee and independent contractor. Second, the program also hosts workshops and clinics, in which the lawyers do issue-spotting in specific areas and offer general guidance as well. Third, the program offers one-on-one legal representation. That might entail helping a client with business-entity formation, contracts or registering trademarks; it doesn’t include help with bankruptcy or court appearances.

Christopher J. Hayes, vice president and senior associate general counsel at Emerson Electric Co., outlines legal services for microenterprises.

Christopher J. Hayes, vice president and senior associate general counsel at Emerson Electric Co., outlines legal services for microenterprises.

James says almost all clients were referred to the program by more than 80 community partners. Those partners range from chambers of commerce and incubators to banks and microlenders and even local libraries. Some clients work directly with the handful of attorneys in James’ office, though the majority are assisted by outside volunteers.

“This work would not be possible without the support of these pro bono attorneys,” says James, adding that they’ve doubled in number since she took over the program three years ago.

One such volunteer is Christopher J. Hayes, vice president and senior associate general counsel in intellectual property at Emerson Electric Co. and James’ co-presenter at the forum. Hayes says that about five years ago, Emerson launched a pro bono initiative. Members of its legal department have helped to provide all three services in LSEM’s microenterprise program, including one-on-one representation.

For example, they helped two female graduates of UMSL launch their marketing and public-relations company by conducting a trademark-screening search and assisting with state registration. They helped two Syrian immigrants with advice on meeting health-permit requirements for a restaurant. In a collaboration with the U.S. Small Business Administration, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the nonprofit microlender Justine Petersen, they also taught small-business legal classes to formerly incarcerated individuals.

“They have trouble getting jobs on their own,” Hayes says. “We want to give them every opportunity we can.”

All in all, James says that more than 400 new jobs have been created by the program, and that participants have received a combined $3 million in funding and loans.

For more information on the program, go to lsem.org

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