Patricia Lane PartnerFoley & Lardner LLP – Milwaukee offic
When the pandemic hit and lockdowns went into effect, business lawyers became somewhat of a crisis helpline for small business owners navigating the complicated legality of government-mandated closures, mask ordinances, business interruption insurance and health and safety protocols.
Patricia Lane, a partner in Foley & Lardner’s Milwaukee office, was among those lawyers who’d get stopped in the grocery store or around town by business owners looking for answers. So, in the summer of 2020, Lane worked with the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Section and the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics to create a program that pairs volunteer attorneys and Marquette University law students with Wisconsin-based small business owners seeking legal advice – free of charge.
“We realized there was this real groundswell need from a lot of small business owners for guidance,” said Lane. “It came to our attention that there were other issues as well that business owners were struggling with.”
When the Small Business Assistance project launched in February 2021, many business owners who signed up for the hour-long Zoom or phone consultations came with questions directly related to COVID-19 and subsequent government mandates. But as time has passed and businesses face new and chronic challenges, the program has expanded to advise on everything from corporate formalities and contract language to starting a second line of business.
Lane said the service has been met with steady demand from both sides – small businesses that can’t afford to incur the steep cost of non-litigation legal services, and attorneys who want to give back.
“Business lawyers don’t have as much opportunity to participate in pro-bono activities because a lot of (that work) is related to litigation and criminal disputes,” said Lane. “So, there’s a lot of pent-up demand where you’ve got lawyers who want to donate their services, who want to participate and help out. … It’s been a really rewarding experience for all of us who have participated.”
To date, 25 volunteer attorneys and 20 volunteer law students have served 144 clients through the assistance program, totaling approximately 226 hours.
The way Lane sees it, the program is designed to have a ripple effect on the greater community, starting with local small businesses.
“Those are the businesses that make these communities what they are,” she said. “So, to the extent that we can give back and make the community better for everybody by nurturing these small businesses and doing what we can to make sure they’ve got the resources they need without paying a lot for them, then they can thrive and better the community for all of us.”
It may come as a surprise that Wisconsin is one of the first states to offer a pro bono program for business law issues, but that could soon change. Lane said the program has garnered interest from other state bar associations across the U.S.