Pro bono work is about more than giving back to the community or meeting a lawyer’s professional obligation to do so. For law firms, it can also make good business sense, prompting a positive domino effect for themselves, the clients they serve, and minority- and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) striving for success in their communities.
Indeed, legal services are a major expense for many small businesses, including M/WBEs. Further, legal services for small businesses can span areas ranging from corporate, employment, and real estate to intellectual property, data privacy and security, and other practice areas in which owners may not even be aware they need assistance. Considering both this reality and the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 6.1 noting that “every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay,” it is incumbent on law firms to assist small businesses—particularly those owned by women and minorities, who continue to face systemic challenges in securing loans and other funding and accessing critical services to launch and grow their operations. Equally important for law firms to understand is that providing pro bono services can be beneficial to their own operations, with the potential for pro bono M/WBE clients to become future billable clients. In providing pro bono corporate counseling to early-stage, scalable M/WBEs (for example, preparing for and helping them acquire seed and venture capital investments), law firms eliminate an economic barrier for such businesses. In the event these M/WBEs receive such capital financing, they would likely have the appropriate amount of funding to scale their businesses and possibly become future billable clients of the law firms that initially provided pro bono legal services to them.
Pro bono legal services for small businesses have been especially valuable in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with countless startups and even established small businesses struggling to stay afloat. In 2020, our firm (Gibbons P.C.) was approached by a nonprofit, the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL), to partner on one of its new initiatives, “Small Businesses Need Us” (SBNU), created to provide free legal counsel and other business services to M/WBEs impacted by the pandemic. Gibbons attorneys have since donated hundreds of hours to SBNU to clients ranging from a STEM enrichment program for students, to an event management company, to a life and business empowerment coach.
Our partnership with IFEL has been so successful that IFEL has since become a billable client of the firm. The organization devotes much of its effort to connecting small businesses with investors and other financing channels—an essential endeavor, given the World Economic Forum report that, in 2021, “Black woman start-up founders received just 0.34% percent of the total venture capital spent in the U.S.” IFEL is in the process of purchasing a for-profit group of diverse women angel investors, with Gibbons as its legal counsel.
One of IFEL’s business cohorts is OneKIN, a fintech company that builds software solutions to help small businesses compete in the digital landscape. Gibbons has assisted OneKIN for the past two years through IFEL’s SBNU program. Our pro bono work for OneKIN involved restructuring its ownership and cleaning up its capitalization table, as well as negotiating the buyout of certain founders. Since we began our engagement with OneKIN, the company has been accepted into MasterCard’s Start Path Program, designed to accelerate companies and set them up for future Mastercard acquisition. Gibbons continues to provide pro bono legal services to OneKIN by (i) reviewing/drafting a MasterCard accelerator agreement; (ii) drafting an Intellectual Property Assignment Agreement between founders of the company; and (iii) reviewing a Statement of Work and Master Services Agreement for product sales overseas. OneKIN now has plans to expand its business with the launch of an AI-powered livestream shopping app and has positioned itself to become a billable client of the firm.
During the COVID pandemic, Gibbons also partnered with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (AACCNJ) and its M/WBE members. With many small businesses, M/WBEs in particular, finding it difficult to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans during the initial phase of the pandemic, Gibbons connected the AACCNJ with one of our longtime clients—New Jersey Community Capital, a large, regional, community development financial institution—in order for the two organizations to partner for a joint venture called the Equitable Small Business Initiative (ESBI). ESBI is well-supported by large financial institutions, enabling it to facilitate access to critical capital by New Jersey’s Black business enterprises and provide them with hands-on, customized support and pandemic relief loans. After Gibbons structured this joint venture, the AACCNJ not only became a billable client of the firm, but also asked the firm to partner on the AACCNJ Pro Bono Alliance, a joint initiative whereby Gibbons supports AACCNJ member companies, on a pro bono basis, in launching, sustaining, or advancing their businesses.
While certain types of pro bono matters have the potential to become billable matters for law firms, pro bono work can also attract other clients or individuals who look for firms with a demonstrated commitment to pro bono representation. Pro bono work can generate cost savings as well, through its inherent offering of critical training and professional development to attorneys, particularly associates. Attorneys who provide pro bono services gain a valuable, firsthand view of the tangible ways their knowledge and experience are assisting small businesses, which leads to better client service overall. Gibbons regularly holds pro bono clinics for its attorneys, with incentives for reaching a certain numbers of hours per year.
Here at Gibbons, our philosophy is “doing good while doing well.” Without a doubt, establishing and building pro bono relationships has been both rewarding and profitable. Pro bono work should be an economic incentive for all law firms, one that can lead to a win for all parties involved.
World Economic Forum, “Black women lack access to VC funding. Here’s what we can do.” March 27, 2023. ↑