Should Pro Bono Lawyers Help Social Entrepreneurs?
Courtney Ivins, Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation*
In commemorating the second annual National Pro Bono Week (October 24-30, 2010), people across the country have joined together to celebrate the critical contributions of pro bono lawyers in expanding access to the U.S. justice system for the poor and disenfranchised, and for organizations that serve those populations in the U.S. and across the world. (Links to many of these pro bono legal service providers can be found here.)
As part of this week’s celebration, we would like to open this forum to discuss the role of pro bono lawyers in supporting the growing and changing legal needs of some in the U.S. social sector.
In recent years, while many legal aid and pro bono programs have offered services to nonprofits, charities, and other tax-exempt organizations, few have directed their assistance to the growing community of social entrepreneurs, whose legal needs and approaches to social change often fall outside the norms of traditional pro bono legal matters.
While the growth of the social entrepreneurship movement has been fostered by several supportive legal developments, such as the passage of L3C legislation in 7 states and two Indian Nations, and the recent creation of the “B Corporation” in Maryland, the legal challenges in the field remain. The difficulties of emerging social entrepreneurs in navigating this complex legal landscape, together with their own nontraditional approaches to social change, have created a growing need for legal support in the sector, which arguably pro bono providers have been unable (and/or unwilling) to fully meet to date.
As one Wordpress blogger recently observed, “Practitioners familiar with social enterprise are aware of the frustration that prospective social entrepreneurs feel when trying to identify the correct legal structure for their ventures. Informal polls have suggested that the legal structure question is the single greatest challenge that social entrepreneurs face when starting a venture.”
Can and should pro bono law be encouraged to meet the growing legal needs of social entrepreneurs? Do the for-profit elements of many social enterprises, as some have suggested, mean they should be excluded from pro bono legal services entirely?
The limited resources of social entrepreneurs and the finite supply of pro bono legal service providers create the need to make legal information and resources more accessible to the sector. LawForChange has begun to meet that need by compiling free, comprehensive legal resources tailored to social entrepreneurs and the U.S. social sector more broadly. However, in terms of direct legal assistance, the role of pro bono lawyers in supporting social entrepreneurial ventures, especially those with for-profit components, should continue to be discussed and debated.
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