Strengthening Organizations that Lift Communities
Breaking Ground had been providing education, job readiness, and employment services to Chicago’s North Lawndale community for years before seeking help from The Law Project, a program under Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign. Breaking Ground needed legal assistance with the purchase of a residential building to provide transitional housing for ex-offenders who successfully completed their job-readiness program, and The Law Project had the resources and expertise to help make that a reality. A partnership soon developed, and Breaking Ground continued to turn to the program for help with other legal matters, including acquisition and financing of vacant lots to develop single family affordable housing, tax and employment issues. The relationship with pro bono counsel for a specific legal issue developed into a general counsel partnership which includes board membership.
Similar socially-driven organizations have long sought and benefited from The Law Project (TLP), a program that connects nonprofit organizations with pro bono counsel. TLP is the only program in Chicago focused on providing pro bono transactional representation to nonprofit organizations, and low-income entrepreneurs, small business owners, and first-time home buyers. Whether it’s helping acquire property to turn it into a community center or updating an employment handbook, TLP works with the perspective of bettering communities building small businesses that improve economic opportunities in a community and strong nonprofits that serve the public.
TLP has recently focused on learning how to better serve social enterprises, which are revenue-generating businesses created to further a social purpose. TLP was originally created more than 30 years ago to serve community-based economic development organizations that worked to improve low-income communities. Pro bono attorneys provided transactional legal work to secure buildings, housing, or help set up food pantries. Over the years, the work has evolved to include social service organizations, low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs, and first-time homebuyers working through the Chicago Housing Authority and other housing counseling agencies in Chicago.
The organizations we work with are critical to the survival of the people who live in underserved communities, said program director Jody Adler. Whether it’s a grocery store or housing that you can get in a better, well-served community, they are there trying to even the playing field.
TLP staff refers out most cases to pro bono attorneys, with the majority of volunteers coming from large law firms. Seyfarth Shaw partners with the program to run an employer hotline for small business entrepreneurs and nonprofits once a month.
TLP hosts workshops throughout the year, including an Emerging Nonprofit Certificate of Training program for founders of nonprofit startups. Other topics have included Fair Labor Standards Act changes, intellectual property protection, compliance issues, and property tax and assessment. TLP also puts together small business legal clinics in various Chicago neighborhoods 4-5 times a year to provide one-on-one legal advice.
TLP’s website features a number of resources, including publications and webinars, available for nonprofits, small businesses, and homeowners. TLP also puts out helpful Legal Alerts on relevant topics like the Chicago ordinance requiring paid sick leave or unemployment benefits for nonprofit employees.
One of TLP’s latest initiatives is the Community Lawyering Program, started in June. The program focuses on legal representation to community coalitions that are looking at issues such as gentrification and displacement of individuals living in the community. Staff recently met with residents in Washington Park regarding the Obama Presidential Library, and spoke about some opportunities to preserve the neighborhood while still getting the benefit of development, and has also visited Logan Square and Pilsen.
Bonnie Allen, executive director of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, added, We want to build the capacity of individuals and communities so they can increase their economic assets, as well as have a place at the table when new developments and infrastructure are planned.