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A Decade of Serving Small Businesses

February 02, 2016

The Small Business Legal Clinic celebrates 10 years of offering low-cost legal services to local entrepreneurs.

Photo by Robert M Reynolds.Photo by Robert M Reynolds.

Each semester, an unassuming downtown office suite becomes a real-world training ground for more than a dozen Lewis & Clark law students. There, they serve a real-life need: providing legal advice to Portland-area entrepreneurs who want to turn their business dreams into reality.

The Small Business Legal Clinic was a good opportunity to get some practical experience representing clients in areas of transactional business, which is what I’d wanted to do after school. Levi Johnston J.D. ’09 Former clinic student and current SBLC pro bono lawyer

In the 10 years since Lewis & Clark’s Small Business Legal Clinic (SBLC) opened, it has provided transactional legal help to more than 900 low-income small and emerging businesses, cooperatives, and nonprofits—most of whom say they would have forged ahead without such aid at their own peril. Seventy-three percent of clients are businesses owned by women, minorities, and recent immigrants. They range from alternative health care providers to restaurateurs to clothiers to landscape architects.

Clients receive assistance with matters such as entity selection, contracts, regulatory compliance, and trademarks. Depending on their needs, clients go through the clinic’s intern program, which pairs them with teams of two law students, or see a local business attorney who participates in the clinic’s pro bono program.

Law students who enroll in the SBLC course get a semester’s worth of hands-on legal training. Starting with conducting the initial client interview, they research specific matters, draft contracts and other client documents, and provide legal advice.

Students who repeat the class serve as directors who oversee student teams and handle more complex cases; some are also hired on as paid law clerks.

Thanks to the Small Business Legal Clinic, we opened our business with a little more knowledge and a little more protection. We could have never done it without them.Annie Maribona J.D. ’09 Owner of Fat Fancy Fashions and SBLC client

Many alumni are among the dozens of licensed attorneys who volunteer in the clinic each year. The SBLC’s pro bono program is one of the few opportunities for local business lawyers to volunteer their services in their area of expertise.

The clinic is the sole legal-services provider in Portland’s network of micro-entrepreneur support organizations, and receives funding from a variety of public and private sources. It opened in 2006 with the support of a $100,000 grant from the City of Portland, and today enjoys support from the Portland Development Commission along with several large law firms, banks, and other companies, as well as private foundations.

Over the years, the clinic has grown in size and scope. In 2013, the clinic added a fee-for-service program for small businesses whose income exceeds the threshold for free services, and began providing administrative support for low-cost legal services offered by Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. In 2014, it added the law school’s Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Satisfaction among clients is high. Last year, a survey of 49 clients rated the clinic 4.65 out of 5 in overall experience, and all but one said they would recommend the SBLC to another business.

“The clinic’s high marks given by an ever-increasing number of clients means we are creating real value in our community.Executive Director Steve Goebel

“The clinic’s high marks given by an ever-increasing number of clients means we are creating real value in our community,” says Executive Director Steve Goebel, who helped found the clinic.

The surveys also reveal just how much the SBLC’s services are needed: Over the last two years, about 90 percent of clients say they would not have had the financial resources to resolve their issue with an attorney.

The facts and figures at right provide ample visual proof of the success of the clinic’s mission: to supply small businesses with the transactional legal services they need to thrive.

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