On October 29th the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) hosted the inaugural Small Business Legal Academy (SBLA) at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater. The purpose of the SBLA was to assist nascent small businesses by connecting them with pro bono and legal services attorneys and community development organizations. In the post below Alison King, Pro Bono Counsel at Kaye Scholer and one of the lead organizers of the SBLA, reflects on the impetus for the SBLA, the benefits of the model, and the successful day itself.

Small business legal relief is an integral aspect of law firm pro bono programs and economic redevelopment initiatives throughout New York City. The typical model involves one firm partnering with one legal services provider to identify a community-based organization (or citywide organization with local offices) to serve a specific under-resourced community in need of economic development. The legal services provider and local organization help with logistics such as outreach, client screening, data collection, and follow-up. A range of legal services are then provided by the firm at ongoing, regularly scheduled clinics. At their discretion, firms can provide follow-up pro bono representation of individual businesses. This has been and continues to be a successful, even crucial tool in community economic development.

Harlene, Alison, and Kevin
Alison King (Kaye Scholer), Harlene Katzman (Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP), and Kevin Curnin (Stroock & Stroock & Lavan) at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater (Bisnow Media)

The Small Business Legal Academy (SBLA) is a step beyond the traditional model. Our reinvention of the small business pro bono legal services throws aside the single site model in favor of an open market approach: bringing law firms and fledgling small businesses together on a large scale, adding to the mix financial services consultants and City and State agencies. This model is designed to have deeper immediate impact, with a wider array of resources, and the opportunity to discuss typical legal issues with a broad audience (through workshops) as well as advise individual business owners (through one-to-one legal counseling). The model is replicable, and APBCo is beginning to plan SBLAs in Los Angeles and Dallas and future academies in New York.

We launched our pilot Small Business Legal Academy at Harlem’s World Famous Apollo Theater, on October 29, 2013. We are deeply appreciative to the Apollo for the opportunity, and particularly to Joe Levy, Director of Operations at the Apollo.

This project was conceived by New York-based members of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (“APBCo”), a membership organization of full-time pro bono counsel and coordinators at major commercial law firms. APBCo has over 125 members from more than 85 law firms nationwide, including many AmLaw 200 firms. APBCo is dedicated to improving access to justice by advancing the model of the full-time law firm pro bono counsel, enhancing the professional development of pro bono counsel, and serving as a unified voice for the national law firm pro bono community.

The inspiration for a nationwide project grew out of a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, DC. Last September, the Vice President met with APBCo’s Board of Directors to focus on issues of access to justice and the role of pro bono attorneys in the delivery of legal services to the poor, including innovative collaborations between law firms, legal services organizations, bar associations, and the judiciary.

With this backdrop, APBCo initiated a long-term project to seed and launch a series of new collaborations across the country designed to expand national law firm efforts to increase access to justice. The APBCo IMPACT (Involving More Pro bono Attorneys in our Communities Together) Project is already taking root in eight urban centers, from Seattle to New York, and beyond. The objective is to design innovative and sustainable new solutions that will increase access to free legal services. The Small Business Legal Academy is one of several APBCo IMPACT projects in New York City and in other large cities across the country.

APBCo reached out to the following legal services organizations as partners for the SBLA:

Lawyers Alliance for New York

Legal Aid Society of New York

Legal Services NYC, Brooklyn A

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest


Start Small, Think Big

Urban Justice Center

Volunteers of Legal Service

City Bar Justice Center/NELP

The planning committee consisted of representatives from each of those organizations, and from the following law firms: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, Kaye Scholer, Proskauer Rose, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Skadden Arps, and Stroock Stroock & Lavan.

The first SBLA was open all day, October 29th,assisting 215 business owners and micro-entrepreneurs; the academy included legal service sessions with 157 volunteer attorneys from 31 APBCo member law firms, workshops tailored to small business owners and non-profit leaders, and a small business bazaar with financial services consultants, City and State agencies, and other service providers. The overall goal was to provide immediate basic legal assistance to small businesses and to educate the small business community about the services, pro bono and otherwise, legal and non-legal, that are available to them to help grow their business.

As Bill Lienhard, Executive Director of Volunteers of Legal Services, eloquently said: “I am grateful that, through VOLS’ Microenterprise Project, I had the opportunity to be part of this important effort to provide legal information, advice, and assistance of the highest caliber to New York City’s small businesses and entrepreneurs. I look forward to continuing to work with the firms and organizations that, under APBCO’s leadership, made the SBLA such a success.” My thoughts exactly. Thank you to all of the people who helped us make this such a wonderful event. See you at the next SBLA!