THE BLOG

Get a Lawyer Son, Get a Real Good (and Pro Bono) One

08/19/2013 04:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Too many for-profit social enterprises make one huge mistake in their first year... something that potentially costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They don't take the time to secure pro bono support.

I am a for-profit... why would I be able to get pro bono?

Earlier this year I was talking with a colleague who runs a fantastic for-profit social enterprise in Africa. His company was growing and he told me he could easily see himself spending $100,000 this year on lawyers. On the one hand, he wanted to make sure the agreements he was signing were airtight. On the other hand, he was seriously concerned that legal costs were going to sink the ship. The thing is, my friend didn't need to choose between growing his business and getting sound legal advice. Pro bono would have solved his problem.

Securing pro bono is one of first things you should do when starting your for-profit social enterprise

My company, Impact Energies, works with customers who earn $1-$6 a day in Ghana and is unashamedly a for-profit because we can have the greatest impact this way (read my Fast Company post for some context). When I approached Nixon Peabody about pro bono legal support, they had no problem with us being a for-profit because they could see the strong social mission of the company.

Nixon Peabody have provided me with over $500,000 of legal services, making sure my legal ass was covered in all of my contracts. Big or small, complicated or simple, they were there. Amongst other things, they helped us incorporate, gave me advice on structuring the company (we have companies in the US and in Ghana), wrote employment and independent contractor agreements and assisted with investment negotiations.

Put simply, I have a stronger business, and have been able to invest more of my time and money into reaching poor customers in Ghana, because I knew Nixon Peabody had my back. And for three years and counting, they did this for free.

Sound good? You bet it does. If pro bono legal support is something you've always wondered about, now is the time to get off your butt and make it happen. Here is how:

1. Figure out if you are eligible. The Pro Bono Institute is the leading authority on pro bono guidelines for law firms. Their current guidelines state that pro bono services can be provided to for-profits if (and I am paraphrasing here):

• the mission is to improve the lives of disadvantaged people or groups;
• the activities and use of funds are dedicated to that mission;
• the business has minimal funds and is not able to pay for legal or other professional services; and,
• the pro bono relationship is temporary

In other words, if you are a social enterprise start up, you have an awfully good chance of being eligible.

2. Scour your personal network for any of your friends, or friends of friends, or Auntie's neighbor's friends who are lawyers. Try to target those lawyers who work for firms on this list. If you have no lawyers in your network, go to a couple of relevant conferences and stalk some lawyers there. Chat to them about what you are doing, why you need pro bono, and ask if they have any interest in helping you. You want to find as many contacts in different law firms as possible at this stage.

3. Find an advocate within the law firm. My advocate at Nixon Peabody is all round nice guy and lawyer superstar Dan McAvoy. 'The way it works' Dan explains, 'is that the pro bono team gets many pro bono requests a day. These requests are sent out to the lawyers in the firm on a regular basis. If none of the lawyers put up their hand to take on the project, your pro bono request in that firm is most likely dead in the water.'

McAvoy notes that to dramatically improve your chances of success, 'You need to proactively approach people and find yourself a lawyer within the firm who will agree to lead the project. When someone agrees to lead the pro bono case, there is a good chance the pro bono work will get "staffed" - lawyer speak for securing the human resources within the law firm to make the work happen."

4. Landing your own Dan McAvoy takes preparation. Ideally, you should be prepared to provide an elevator pitch, a professional looking PowerPoint presentation, short business plan and maybe even a financial model. The key here is to convince your potential advocate how incredibly successful your business will be. Lawyers want to know you aren't some 'fly by the seat of your pants' kind of businessperson who will disappear after a year. Even if you are this person, being prepared will give you your best shot at hiding it.

5. Show that you can wean yourself off the teat. You need to show that your business will become profitable and will grow, eventually allowing you to wean yourself off the pro bono teat and transition to a paying customer. Pro bono isn't an endless gravy train.

6. Make sure you like and trust the person sitting across from you. A productive working relationship requires respect and trust, and you are going to get a lot more out of the relationship if you get along with your advocate.

The beautiful thing is that pro bono extends to all sorts of professional services, not just legal. Think marketing, web design, video production and more. Now that you have the basics, pro bono is just a phone call away.