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New York City Bar Justice Center

Critical advice for New York’s small-business community

As one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the United States, the impact of COVID-19-related social distancing and business closures has been particularly acute in New York City.

This has left many of its smaller enterprises – often owned by an individual or a family – facing commercial and legal issues they had little or no experience of. For example, how do I furlough my staff? Can I renegotiate the lease with my landlord? What government support is available?

A nationwide coalition

Even in good times, the vast majority of small businesses don’t have the means to pay top-tier law firms to get them the answers they need.

To help meet the fast-growing demand for advice, Lawyers for Good Government built a nationwide coalition of law firms and non-profit organizations to provide:

  • guidance on federal, state, and local financial support programs; and
  • pro bono consultations to help small-business owners deal with the legal issues that have arisen as a result of COVID-19.

The organization responsible for managing the initiative in New York City is the City Bar Justice Center (CBJC), part of the New York City Bar Association – or the "City Bar" as it is better known by its members and the local legal community.

Freshfields has a long-standing relationship with the CBJC, having worked with it on a number of pro-bono immigration-related cases. Freshfields attorneys are again supporting the work of the CBJC’s pro-bono efforts by volunteering to provide legal advice to small-business owners impacted by COVID-19.

New York consultations

To access support, small-business owners submit their questions to the CBJC, which then pairs the small-business owner with a volunteer lawyer from a law firm such as Freshfields or a corporate legal department in the New York City area. Via the Center, the lawyer provides pro-bono legal advice in response to the small-business owners' questions.

A number of Freshfields lawyers have so far had consultations with clients, which have included owners of bars for both beer and eyebrows. Each engagement lasts for 45 minutes plus some follow-up time if needed.

Individual outcomes

The program has been instructive for lawyers and clients alike.

"It’s rewarding advising someone who is directly dependent on your recommendations," says Senior Associate Laura Collins. "Freshfields tends to advise large, global organizations. And of course we have great personal relations with their people. But it is quite different to help someone through a predicament that puts their very livelihood at stake."

"With the clinic, you have an hour or so to make a difference," points out Associate Karen Wiswall. "This means you really have to make it count by concentrating on the most critical issues.’

One of the benefits of the program is that lawyers of all experience levels can get involved and really make a difference. "Providing this type of commercial and legal advice in a compressed timeframe helps junior attorneys really hone their business advisory skills," says Paul Humphreys, Partner. "These are as relevant to advising the owner of a craft cocktail bar as they are to advising the board of a Fortune 500 client.

"But like all of our work, this is first and foremost about serving our clients," Paul continues. "And when someone fearing personal ruin, like one of the small-business owners we advised, tells you she has gained the confidence to renegotiate the terms of her lease, that makes it all worthwhile."

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