A partnership between volunteer lawyers, corporate counsel and the public sector is working to make sure that struggling entrepreneurs can get key legal advice without spending a dime.
LegalCORPS, a Minneapolis nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to business law assistance, has been coordinating what it calls long-distance clinics for about three years. At 10 sites throughout the state (see data box), long-distance clinics are held at mostly regular intervals throughout the year.
To put on the long-distance clinics, LegalCORPS partners with regional Small Business Development Centers to put on the consultations. The clinics are an outgrowth of LegalCORPS’ in-person clinics, which take place in three Twin Cities locations along with St. Cloud, Mankato and Rochester.
“Business owners far away from the metro area were contacting us more and more about wanting to participate in these clinics and not being able to,” said LegalCORPS Executive Director Michael Vitt. “The idea for long-distance clinics came from both clients and the lawyers serving them. The mission here since day one has been to provide access to legal assistance statewide.”
Volunteer business lawyers gather at a central location, often hosted at the headquarters of one of the program’s corporate sponsors, and field questions via video conferencing software from low-income entrepreneurs in parts of Minnesota that don’t have a lawyer population big enough to sustain LegalCORPS’ regular in-person sites.
To get the program going, LegalCORPS leveraged its growing relationship with various small business development centers throughout the state, and the long-distance clinics came to life as a pilot program, with the first one held in Hutchinson. Part of the push for the clinic sprang from the fact that the SBDCs were helping entrepreneurs get started but couldn’t always answer questions about business law.
“The whole idea was that through the long-distance clinics we could serve a clientele that has very little access to people who specialize in business law,” said Marty Rosenbaum, a partner at the Maslon firm in Minneapolis who is currently president-elect of LegalCORPS. “Someplace like Duluth has law firms, but a lot of business owners outstate don’t even know where they would find a lawyer, much less afford one who can give specialized advice.”
Because there’s not a small business development office in every region of the state, the University of Minnesota-Duluth helps coordinate long-distance clinics serving the Iron Range. A volunteer at UMD collects information about the businesses that will have questions in the upcoming session, and sends it to the volunteer lawyers in advance.
The clinics are put on at a minimal cost. Aside from some staffing expenses for UMD, LegalCORPS employs a half-time employee, Melanie Lowin, who coordinates the long-distance clinics.
“We have all regions of the state covered either by in-person clinics or long-distance clinics,” said Vitt, who added that LegalCORPS is looking at closing remaining gaps by introducing clinics that will be accessible to business owners who might be a prohibitive distance from one of the cities that currently host them.
Rosenbaum said entrepreneurs tend to be concerned with a number of similar issues. About half the questions fielded by volunteer lawyers concern organizational structure — types of business entities, what they mean, how an LLC compares to S Corp, a C Corp or a partnership. The long-distance clinics don’t handle litigation matters and generally don’t review contracts, although some of those services can be provided via other LegalCORPS avenues and affiliations.
“Helping them determine the right kind of entity can help in a number of ways, and it limits their exposure to lawsuits and offers tax advantages,” Rosenbaum said. “The rest of the questions are divided between IP questions about things like trademarks and patents, and questions about real estate, contracts and employment law.”
Medtronic is one of the companies that provide conference areas, video conferencing equipment and its own lawyers to help with the long distance clinics, along with U.S. Bank, Best Buy and others. John Getsinger, the principal legal counsel and pro bono program coordinator for Medtronic’s Neuromodulation Division, said that at each monthly clinic the company hosts, there’s generally one Maslon and one Medtronic lawyer to field questions.
“It helps entrepreneurs and it helps us because it promotes professional development internally,” Getsinger said. “The more kinds of legal issues our lawyers are forced to confront, the better they become.”
Rosenbaum said a wide range of businesses participate in the clinics, and that there are no specific requirements for qualifying.
“They tend to be very small businesses, people starting out,” he said. “People generally come to see a lawyer if they’re getting sued or need to sue somebody. We’re trying to nip problems in the bud.”
Locations and times for long-distance legal clinics:
Bemidji: 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.
Brainerd: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the final Thursday of each month at the Small Business Development Center office at Central Lakes College.
Duluth: noon to 2 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at the UMD Center for Economic Development.
Grand Marais: noon to 2 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at Cook County Higher Education.
Grand Rapids: noon to 2 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at the Small Business Administration office.
Hutchinson: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Southwest Initiative Foundation. Also by appointment at the Small Business Development Center.
International Falls: noon to 2 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at the Small Business Development Center.
Marshall: By appointment at the Small Business Development Center office at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Moorhead: 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at Minnesota State University, Moorhead.
Virginia: noon to 2 p.m. on the final Tuesday of each month at the Small Business Development Center office at Mesabi Range College.