Most of you may already know about Sustainable Economies Law Center's Resilient Communities Legal Cafe program, the Law Center's innovative drop-in legal services clinic that happens 3x a month throughout the Bay Area.
What happens when you take the Legal Cafe model and replicate in a mid-sized town in Southwest Ohio, in a community that has never heard of it?
This is the story of how I was able to pull it off, the lessons I learned along the way, and how YOU, too, can launch a Legal Cafe to provide legal support to community-owned enterprises in your town.
ABLE and the Dayton, Ohio Region
First, let me introduce myself: my name is Jacqueline Radebaugh, and I am a staff attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE) in Dayton, Ohio. ABLE is a legal services nonprofit organization that provides free legal services (usually litigation and legal education) to people of low and moderate income in a variety of civil areas, in 32 counties in Ohio. I was hired in 2017 to develop a new program within the Housing & Community Economic Development practice, where I was expected to creatively use my expertise as a corporate tax attorney in Brazil and my experience as in-house for nonprofits in France, to support a growing demand for social entrepreneurship in Dayton, Ohio. But I won’t bother you with the challenges of implementing these types of services within a traditional legal aid organization.
While I am part of a large team, I am the only staff person on this program for the Dayton region. Dayton, which is located in the southwest corner of Ohio, has lost thousands of jobs due to manufacturing outsourcing and factory closures, and has been recently showcased as the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. But Dayton was also known as Patent City, USA, and despite the prevalent blight, redlining, high poverty levels and segregation, and disinvestment by traditional industries, the city has an extremely resilient population fighting to take back control of its present and future. An example is the incredible community support around the Gem City Market, a multistakeholder grocery co-op with over 2,000 members, which will break ground this Summer 2019. Since March 2018, I have organized just over 25 training sessions with little under 300 attendees, while waiting for my license to practice law in Ohio. Earlier this year I decided that it was time for the next step: legal clinics.
Getting on the Road to the Legal Cafe
To start, I consulted Law Center resources (and I encourage you to do so as well!). Most notably, I relied on the Law Center's “Practical Guide for Starting a Legal Cafe”. The manual provided invaluable tips on things like what to expect and templates for intake. I also reached out to Law Center staff attorneys like Cameron Rhudy, who authored the Legal Cafe guide . After taking in all this information, I was ready to get the show on the road.
Recruiting Attorneys & Presenters
I wanted to incorporate a teach-in workshop to the legal cafe. To some extent, offering a teach-in with a more experienced business attorney felt right, so I organized a one-hour session on types of business entities, presented by Brandon E. Dobyns (Taft Law), a private business attorney, and bringing also my ABLE colleague Upendra Patel to talk about the challenges of starting and running his family’s small business, a hotel in Ohio.
Finding the right attorneys to volunteer for consultation sessions was a challenge at first. I overcame this by begging every attorney in my firm with a background in business and nonprofit law to brush-up on their knowledge and come support me. I was surprised to find five of them present at the Legal Cafe, including several who drove as long as 2 1/2 hours from our Northwest Ohio office to volunteer at the legal cafe. Four private attorneys had committed as well, but three of them cancelled last minute. Luckily, the presenter brought an associate along. I can honestly say that I had more attorneys than I needed. In total, there were seven attorneys on site.
The Secret Sauce for Marketing & Reaching Underserved Communities
A challenge I had anticipated due to prior trainings was marketing to the right audience. It took me many workshops to realize that advertising through traditional business assistance service providers, such as SCORE and the Small Business Development Centers, and most traditional partner organizations, was not necessarily the way to reach out to minorities, people of color, or folks interested in “new solutions for resilient local economies.”
It dawned on me that I needed to be more intentional about my outreach if I wanted different results. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about housing, domestic violence, or small business development; economic justice and racial equity don’t happen by happenstance. Minority groups, particularly people of color, lack representation in traditional business assistance institutions. Their particular needs and challenges are often unknown or misunderstood by the advisor -- for example, people of color have less access to “friends and family” capital; are more likely to have unreliable transportation and access to child care for meetings -- and some solutions proposed and expectations are unrealistic. Innovative legal and business services must cater to this population.
With that in mind, I expanded my outreach strategy and engaged two community organizers in the marketing of the training. My firm recently hired a community engagement specialist, Jasmine Rogers, to make sure that we stay true to our commitment to community lawyering. Kenya Baker, a long-time Dayton organizer now working with Co-op Dayton has also been a great partner in many projects. These two passionate women made sure to spread the word about the event in the community. This made the session more diverse, not only from a demographic’s perspective, but also types of businesses. Eleven individuals signed up for the teach-in, of these, eight showed up, and five of them signed up to talk with an attorney after the teach-in.
While I approach this work as a matter of economic justice, it is true that our local ecosystem of service providers lacks the offer of basic, affordable transactional services to micro entrepreneurs, making it a challenge to focus on worker-ownership and democratic governance when most people I come across is still struggling to grasp the traditional business forms.
It’s a curse and a blessing: on the one hand, they don’t need to unlearn models that have created more social harm than good. On the other hand, it has been my experience that, often, the neo-liberal way of doing business is so widespread and promoted as the way to “make it” that it is very challenging to introduce other models and show the local communities that yes, we can do it differently and that we must do business another way if we care for our family, our neighborhood, our planet.
It's All in the Details: Registration & Intake Form
One challenge I had not anticipated, or maybe a process I did not take enough time to think about was registration and intake forms. When advertising online, I provided a link to a questionnaire with about 10 questions (on demographics, type of business, and anticipated legal questions). Answering those questions seem to have made people less inclined to fill out the demographics and intake forms I had on site. Even though I told them that they would not see an attorney without completing at least the intake form, many of the attendees just passed through most of the questions, saying they felt they had already provided the info when registering; that’s on me to figure out.
Location, location, location!
Securing a location, however, was not a challenge for me. This first Café took place at Dayton’s main library in the downtown area. It’s a new and spacious building, accessible, and close to public transportation. I had a room with a lot of natural light, good technology, and many tables outside of it for one-on-one conversations. While the setting was very convenient, I do like the idea of the Legal Café at a local café and locals do too: the coffee shop that will be hosting the next clinic frequently hosts networking events for community-based businesses, minorities, creative, people, and I believe it will have an important positive impact on the audience.
Finally, my last word and sole piece of advice: if you’re thinking about promoting a local, resilient economy, then hosting affordable transactional legal clinics are a no-brainer. The legal system can be a huge barrier in many areas of life and it definitely is for community-based entrepreneurship. The amount of work that goes into it is significant, but there are many resources available—from Sustainable Economies Law Center staff to private attorneys, to legal aid advocates, to business assistance providers—and our entire communities can reap its benefits.