Pro tips for your pro bono experience

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one.

This week we present: money.

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There are always two sides to an issue.
(photo via Shutterstock)

Let’s say your project is close to becoming a real-deal nonprofit or social enterprise. Now there’s all this legal jargon to navigate—and you don’t know where to start.

On top of that, you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur and don’t have mega cash to shell out to get all the answers you need.

So maybe you check out the Foundation Center or wade through hundreds of articles online. But you’re still confused and need more one-on-one attention.

One solution? Find a pro bono lawyer.

But like sustaining any good project, making that relationship work requires patience and understanding. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Get up, stand up for your rights

We wrote recently about Drive Change, a food truck in NYC that trains and employs formerly incarcerated youth.

Founder Jordyn Lexton wasn’t sure if she wanted it to be a for-profit or nonprofit entity. So when a big-name law firm offered to help, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity.

It didn’t turn out to be quite the experience she hoped for.

“I recognized in myself that I was less persistent, and less authoritative, because they were doing it for free,” she says. “It pushed back the timeline, and a couple of mistakes they made pushed back our incorporation status.”

In the end, however, the extra time gave Jordyn the opportunity to explore more options about what Drive Change wanted to be.

She learned a ton from the experience, and the biggest tips she has are to make sure your lawyer is familiar with tax law, especially as it pertains to nonprofits, and that he or she works for a supportive firm that can help them access answers quickly. And while you don’t need to invite them to your wedding, make the relationship as personal as you can.

“Meet in person—a lot. Get to know them and build the relationship so they become more invested in you and your work,” she says.

Courting your lawyer

New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (NJVLA) is a nonprofit that helps artists and arts organizations understand their legal rights and navigate messy problems.

To date, their lawyers have collectively put in over 4,300 hours for a total of 1.7 million dollars in legal fees—for free.

“We’re greasing the wheels of arts in the state,” says board president Peter Skolnik.

NJVLA offers three types of pro bono services: Legal Lines, Law Fax, and Full Service Representation. Have a problem registering copyright for your photographs? Give them a call. Need help deciphering your recording contract? Send them a fax.

If you have an issue that isn’t going to be solved by a simple phone call or fax, NJVLA offers the whole shebang for artists and organizations that fit within certain income guidelines. They start the process by sending an email blast to their cadre of 250 volunteer lawyers to see who would be the best match.

Once you’ve secured your counsel, Peter advises being clear about what you need from the start.

“It’s important for clients to try their best to drill down to what the real problem is, rather than providing so much background that it becomes difficult to understand what the legal issue is,” he says. “Decide what ‘triggering’ event made you realize you need a lawyer.”

Lawyers have lots of different obligations, after all. It can be challenging for them to balance their time, and to do something for free when they only have so many hours in the day, especially when they have paying clients. They’re only human.

But that doesn’t mean they can slack off. From Peter’s perspective, the duty they have is the same.

“One on hand, you shouldn’t assume that because you’re not paying, a lawyer can take a week to get back to you,” he says. “On the other hand, nonpaying clients should assume that lawyers are looking out for interests in a professional manner. If that’s taking longer than expected, you should be sensitive to the fact that your lawyer knows what has to be done and when. It will get done.”

Have you ever worked with a pro bono lawyer or are you one yourself? Tell us about a good experience you’ve had.

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Legal Cuts: Law office + barbershop = community

dudes

Barbers on the job at Legal Cuts.
Not pictured: the lawyer working in the back.
(Photo via Legal Cuts on Facebook)

“Traditional law offices can be intimidating, but folks are comfortable sharing their problems with a barber,” says Donald Howard, the 32-year-old attorney-coiffeur who opened a combination barber shop and law office in New Britain, Connecticut this past spring.

“I thought it was the perfect marriage,” he continues. “People could feel comfortable in this environment and feel they can trust the lawyer. I want to make sure legal services are available to these people,” who he believes may be intimidated by walking into a traditional law office.

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Legal Cuts price list
(Photo via Legal Cuts on Facebook)

The tough job market many recent law school grads are facing prompted Howard to think outside the norm and become the entrepreneur of a “hybrid business.” (Legal Grind, a combo law office and coffee house in Santa Monica, was considered the first when it opened in 2009.)

In Howard’s case, the impetus to start was two-fold: he needed a job, and he wanted to help his neighbors.

“I believe the barbershop is the epicenter of the community,” he says. “People can come in here and play checkers or chess and get to know their surroundings. … It’s gimmicky, but I want people to know that it’s a gimmicky thing that could work and it can help them out.”

Read more about the events that inspired Howard to open Legal Cuts in this Connecticut Law Tribune story.

Do you know of other hybrid businesses that are creating jobs while aiming to better serve a community? Educate us in the comments below.

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Support Alex in rewriting Oregon’s tax law

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Alex

Alex Linsker has done a little bit of everything. He studied playwriting and business as an undergrad at NYU, did marketing for an online T.V. seller, created a software company, interviewed shoppers, and most recently, co-founded and acted as president of the democratic co-working space, Collective Agency in Portland, Oregon.

But one common theme threads his pursuits: the less he knows, the more he wants to do it. So when his time as Community Organizer of the Collective Agency was up, he turned to an issue he knew little about yet would affect any business choice he’d make: taxes.

“As a playwright, I really like figuring out what the false story is and finding what the true story is,” he says. “There’s a lot of mythology about how jobs are created. The truth is that a higher tax rate on people who are the richest grows jobs.”

The intention

Alex wants to introduce a progressive income tax in Oregon through a lobbying group called Tax and Conversation.

He envisions a diverse group that writes an Oregon constitutional amendment, acquires 100,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, and petitions people to vote. He also sees the group building community and promoting education about tax, government, and civics through workshops, meetups, and more. Similar to Collective Agency, the structure will be democratic with membership fees that go to representatives.

The hope of Tax and Conversation is two-fold: On a practical level, getting rid of tax breaks will mean more money for quality K-12 education, healthcare, and other basic services in Oregon. “There’s this scarcity mentality that’s been created and talked about in the news. But there’s more than enough to go around if we choose,” he says.

On a deeper level, Alex believes that a fair tax will help reduce income disparity and therefore generate more trust and empathy in society, a viewpoint he shares with the social researcher Richard Wilkinson.

Obstacles

Alex has been reading, networking, talking, and working with various people and groups such as Tax Fairness Oregon as much as he can. So far he’s created a website that includes a first draft of the amendment.

Here are some current challenges he’s facing:

  1. Alex finds that there is a general lack of awareness about how the tax system works and subsequently, myths about what government services our tax dollars go to.
  2. Communicating the value of the group can be tricky. Different people will read different things into the description.
  3. Some of the feedback he’s gotten from others is that it’s too big of a project given the scope, and they question whether or not will it make a difference.

How you can help

One of many public parks in Oregon Alex hopes more money can go to. (Photo from Ian Sane via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

  • Do you know of any organizations and/or community organizers he could partner with to help him reach people of all ages, races, incomes, etc.?
  • How would you make the Tax and Conversation website even more relevant? What else do you want to learn about tax in Oregon and/or our government services?
  • What are the benefits of a project like this?
  • What issues and questions does it raise?
  • What would motivate you to become a member? What would you need?
  • What government services do you like, and what government services would you like to see improve?
  • Civics education, which promoted the idea of citizens having an active role in solving problems in their communities, was phased out of schools in the late 60’s. What specific examples of civics education are you aware of? What kind of optional civics education for adults would you value?
  • If you’re Oregon-based, would you like to get involved? (Alex is also open to support from outside the state.)

Leave a comment below or send him a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

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Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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