Building Pro Bono Opportunity in Business Law: Lessons Learned from Goodwin’s Neighborhood Business Initiative

4 Min Read By: Anna E. Dodson

A firmwide initiative founded in 2001, Goodwin Procter’s Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI) promotes equity and supports wealth creation in communities that face discrimination based on race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and/or LGBTQ+ status by providing pro bono legal services to entrepreneurs and small business owners who are members of, or whose businesses positively impact, such communities. Started in Boston, Goodwin’s NBI is active in California, Massachusetts, New York, London, and Washington, D.C.

Here are five lessons learned over twenty years on building pro bono opportunity in business law.

Be lawyer led. Since NBI’s grassroots beginnings, attorney teams working with Goodwin’s pro bono team have sourced and grown relationships in the community; run client intake; and staffed clinics, workshops, and individual representations, engaging more than 1,000 Goodwin lawyers and professionals over twenty years. Attorneys roll on and off local NBI committees on an ad hoc basis, as it resonates with the trajectories of their personal lives and professional practices. Local committee priorities shift over time, reflecting their members’ interests and priorities, and so NBI remains dynamic and evolving.

Be values driven. NBI attorneys discuss, in both local and national (cross-office) forums, their values and the opportunities and the practicalities of practicing at a big firm—and how those translate into providing pro bono business legal services. The project was founded on the values of access to justice and community development. Since its beginnings, though, NBI has served entrepreneurs and business owners who face discrimination. In 2020, through a unanimous vote, NBI explicitly reaffirmed its values to reflect this focus.

  • Access to Justice: Providing access to all law for all people
  • Community Development: Supporting small businesses that promote diverse and vibrant neighborhoods
  • Equity for All: Dismantling systemic bias based on race, ethnic background, immigration status, gender, and LGBTQ+ status

Be client focused. An NBI client is a founder, an owner, and an entrepreneur. NBI attorneys connect with their NBI clients and constituencies first by meeting them where they are and listening with an open mind. Through conversations attorneys work with our community organizations to identify the legal services most needed for the constituents they serve. Each potential engagement begins with an assessment with our potential client to assess their goals, priorities, and specific need. To staff new engagements, NBI attorneys identify, through conversations with colleagues, who is excellent in the specific legal areas a constituency or a client needs. From these conversations, and tapping talent across legal practices and industries, NBI fields teams that are focused on and deliver targeted, specific services and resources. NBI has represented more than 450 individual small businesses and entrepreneurs through direct representations and has provided business legal resources to thousands of additional low-income entrepreneurs and small business owners throughout the United States through its programming.

Be real. NBI provides opportunities to business law attorneys in full acknowledgement of the realities of their practices and lives. From “bite size” to “full blown,” NBI works with community partners, legal service organizations, and people we know to provide pro bono opportunities that vary by industry, business law practice, activity, and time commitment. For example, in any given month, opportunities may range from three hours advising at a virtual clinic or two hours on a panel at virtual town hall, to representing a new business in its initial capital raise, developing relationships with community partners to connect with potential clients, or preparing FAQs on legal topics for an industry such as early education and childcare. This menu for involvement has created opportunity for more than 35,000 hours of pro bono legal services provided through NBI—all on business law topics.

Be visible. Branding and visibility are key tools in the NBI toolbox to connect with small businesses and entrepreneurs, who are often isolated with limited access to resources. NBI uses branding and marketing—a snappy logo, a clear mission statement, compelling client stories, interesting volunteer stories, a social media presence, and more—to recruit volunteers, reach potential clients, and support dissemination of the resources we seek to provide. When in person is an option, NBI shows up in the neighborhoods we serve. NBI also provides business legal services to our community partners themselves and other resources where and when we can. A material part of our work is to be visible, strong supporters for the work of our community partners and the value of the constituents they serve.

The views expressed herein are the author’s own and are not necessarily those of any organization with which the author is affiliated.

By: Anna E. Dodson

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