CBA Record September-October 2021


Leveling the Small Business Playing Field: A Call for Transactional Pro Bono Legal Services By AdamW. Cohen

S mall business ownership frequently serves as a path to generate an inde- pendent source of income, develop a legacy to hand down to future generations, or fuel a passion. For affluent individu- als, small business ownership is a readily available pursuit. But for low-income entrepreneurs, the inability to afford the legal resources and support necessary to start or maintain a small business repre- sents a massive barrier denying them the same opportunity. When attorneys render transactional pro bono legal services, we help lower these barriers and level the small business playing field in the process. Undoubtedly, the legal aspects of start- ing and maintaining a business is a daun- ting hurdle for many. Wealthy small busi- ness owners navigate this hurdle through emailing or calling a trusted attorney. In contrast, low-income entrepreneurs are unable to afford typical transactional attor- ney fees. For these entrepreneurs, insuffi- cient legal advice can result in unnecessary headaches and hurdles when pursuing their planned business. Transactional pro bono legal services can make the difference bet- ween allowing low-income entrepreneurs to efficiently compete in running their business and subjecting those same owners to obstacles their wealthier competitors easily navigate. Of course, there is no guarantee that a small business will succeed – even with proper legal assistance. However, businesses started by low-income entrepreneurs fail at a significantly higher rate than those busin- esses owned by their wealthy counterparts. Aside from insufficient access to proper legal services, low-income entrepreneurs face innumerable other operational chal- lenges, such as financially supporting the business through an unprofitable – or minimally profitable – period. Such chal- lenges, though easily resolved by a wealthy entrepreneur, often spell the end to a low- income entrepreneur’s business. Despite these challenges, starting a small business is often a worthwhile risk. For low-income entrepreneurs, small business ownership offers an important alternative or supplement to limited employment

and income options. Even where a small business is not developed to the point of realistically replacing a full-time traditional job, the potential supplemental income generated by the business can offer an important safety net for entrepreneurs living paycheck-to-paycheck. Chicagoland transactional attorneys should actively seek out pro bono oppor- tunities to provide legal services to small businesses owned by low-income entre- preneurs. Supporting low-income entre- preneurs in this way can result in broad and long-term positive impacts within our communities. Regardless of size or income level, when a small business is successfully sustained over a number of years, it offers its owner the opportunity to build inter- generational wealth, which is frequently lacking in low-income communities. When transactional pro bono legal services empower low-income entrepreneurs to operate their small businesses locally, this contributes to the community’s growth and development while remaining uniquely responsive to local needs. This may result in the business identifying and supplying much-needed services to an otherwise under-served community. Additionally, a locally owned small business is more likely to offer employment opportunities

to local residents within the community. In this way, small businesses started by low- income entrepreneurs – and maintained with the assistance of transactional pro bono legal services – can help empower not only entrepreneurs, but the community they serve. While not a silver-bullet solution to all challenges faced, providing transactional pro bono legal services to low-income entrepreneurs is a step in the right direc- tion to leveling the competitive playing field. By providing proper legal advice, transactional attorneys can help ensure that each low-income entrepreneur’s inherited wealth and community background does not remain a barrier to success. Rather, pro bono services empower these entrepreneurs to create a sustainable living for themselves, and to positively impact their communities through small business ownership. We should heed the call.

Adam W. Cohen is an associate at Eckhart Ko lak LLC, where he focuses on bus i- ness transactions and general corporate law matters.

36 September/October 2021

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