“Restructuring” Takes on a Whole New Meaning for the Community Business Clinic: The Debut of the Virtual Legal Help Desk

This past summer, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Business Clinic adapted its established model to the ever-changing and novel issues plaguing small businesses. Instead of the traditional system where students work on conventional, longer-term projects, including contract drafting and entity formation, the Clinic prioritized and operated a virtual help desk. In partnership with the cities of Boston and Lynn, the Clinic made itself available to small businesses through virtual appointments, offering brief advice sessions for COVID-19 related issues. While the shift to working remotely presented many challenges to both the Clinic and the clients it serves, the impact the Clinic has had on the community has been powerful and continues on.

On March 27, 2020, former President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. “The CARES Act provide[d] over $2 trillion in stimulus, directed majorly at small businesses and middle- and lower-income Americans.” In addition to established Small Business Administration funding programs, the CARES Act and subsequent legislation established several new temporary programs to address the COVID-19 outbreak, which include the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) and an adjusted Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (“EIDL”). “The PPP offered small business loans of up to $10 million each that could be fully forgiven if put toward payroll and certain other expenses, while the EIDL advances were emergency grants of up to $10,000 each meant to tide over small businesses waiting on approval for an economic injury loan.” The Baker-Polito Administration also made $688 million available to support Massachusetts businesses through new and existing programs, directing a portion of those funds to sectors experiencing the most significant economic hardship and loss of revenue due to the pandemic. Businesses were able to receive up to $75,000 in aid, to cover a maximum of three months of operating expenses. The terms of these relief programs and the application process were daunting, but many small businesses pursued the opportunities in an attempt to lessen the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. As a result, Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the Community Business Clinic Jared Nicholson and the student advocates of the Community Business Clinic knew they had to adjust their services to cover this new area of small business law.

Thomas Jackson, ’20, a student attorney with the Community Business Clinic in spring 2020, was a day away from his first in-person client meeting when Northeastern announced that all classes and clinics would be conducted remotely until further notice. Jackson noted that learning how to use Zoom was easy, but the shift to being fully remote limited his access to important resources needed for the Clinic. “I didn’t have a printer, and I missed being able to quickly chat with my classmates about my clients; COVID made communication for every party difficult, and it made me feel like I was letting my clients down. One of my clients fell off the grid for a whole month.”

For one client in particular, Jackson realized that his role as the client’s student advocate was changing. The client, a food store, initially came to the Community Business Clinic in the spring for a standard lease negotiation question. As weeks went on, the client became harder to reach as his business was being heavily tapped by the community for essential goods. But soon after, the client needed to shut his doors temporarily due to the pandemic and was facing hardships that seemingly all the Clinic’s clients were facing. That’s when Professor Nicholson encouraged students to delve into the topic of COVID-19-specific issues and change the course of the Clinic, explained Jackson.

Following the spring quarter, Professor Nicholson shifted the Clinic’s services to primarily focus on COVID-19 assistance and immediately began preparing the summer cohort to run the virtual legal help desk. While the course structure of the Clinic remained the same, students were expected to take the class material and apply it to the new client intake and assistance process.

After filling out a quick intake form online, Professor Nicholson would evaluate the potential client to see if they would be a good fit for the Clinic. Upon approval, Professor Nicholson would then pair the client with a student advocate to provide assistance. The issues clients were coming with to the Clinic were beyond the scope of the Corporations course prerequisite, and the thought of having to become competent enough on these new and pressing topics in just a few short weeks was intimidating, to say the least. Professor Nicholson, however, assured the student attorneys that they would be well-prepared and supervised.

“I thought the help desk was great. We got a lot of experience in business, employment, tax, and other areas of the law that we may not have gotten if we participated in the clinic as normal,” said Rohan Vakil, ’21, of his clinic experience. This summer, the Community Business Clinic held appointments for over thirty small business owners in the Greater Boston Area, from clothing stores to tattoo artists. Popular inquiries brought to the help desk included reopening guidelines, financial assistance, and lease negotiations. Many of the issues were unique to the different businesses and industries served, prompting many rounds of discussions amongst the Clinic students. Additionally, the Clinic wanted to ensure that it was accessible to everyone in the community and made its intake form and services available in Spanish. Through the Spanish intake form, the Clinic received about four clients whose consultations were conducted with the help of student translators. Professor Nicholson performed all of the preliminary work needed to get the Clinic up and running, and the summer student attorneys made resource guides to be used internally and then distributed to clients post-consultation.

Towards the end of the quarter, however, more standard questions were brought to the clinic; “we were actually getting clients that were more interested in talking to us about entity selection and new business formation,” said Vakil. The trend in topics covered by the Community Business Clinic this summer truly reflected the developments occurring throughout the pandemic. New businesses are being formed at an impressive and surprising rate ever since the pandemic began. “Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that there were more than 4.25 million new business applications last year, up more than 20% on the year before.” The data for 2021 for new businesses is projected to be even more impressive, but it is also important to recognize that business closures are also on the rise, and the increase in new entities may be due to laid-off workers unable to find work to make up for their loss in income. In September 2020, it was reported that nearly one-fifth of Massachusetts restaurants were permanently closed, and in November, 37% of all Massachusetts small businesses were closed.

Source: https://www.chartr.co/newsletters/2021/2/17/never-waste-a-good-crisis

PapiVivi, a Puerto Rican restaurant located in Lynn, is an example of one of the many businesses able to emerge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant’s current success, however, did not come without difficulty. Sam Cortiella, the owner of PapiVivi and a Northeastern University alumnus, wanted to “fill a void” in the Boston area and make great Puerto Rican food more accessible to the community. Cortiella purchased the property for PapiVivi in April 2020 but was only able to open his doors in October. “It took double the amount of effort than I anticipated to get everything ready,” reflected Cortiella. “There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks even outside the pandemic, that just had everyone kind of tied up.”

Nevertheless, Cortiella persisted. Cortiella had been in the education industry for 10 years and sought help from as many sources as he could in pursuing his entrepreneurial endeavor; “I needed as many business minds as possible,” said the new restaurateur. Cortiella conducted a lot of outreach to the community and other small businesses in the area to seek business advice, as well as market his business. When he learned about the Community Business Clinic from a Northeastern Alumni magazine, Cortiella turned to the clinic for help regarding employer obligations and the creation of an employment offer letter. “Whenever you have more people thinking about you, it helps,” said Cortiella, “it had me think of things I hadn’t thought of before.”

Since the winter 2020/2021 quarter, the Community Business Clinic has returned to its traditional format of taking on longer-term clients for the whole quarter but continues to keep its virtual legal help desk open for any one-off COVID-19 questions. With the expiration of the CARES Act and the enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the legal help desk may return as the Clinic’s prominent system, but similar to changes in the pandemic, the future is unpredictable. What is certain, though, is the Clinic’s commitment to and impact on the community. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Business Clinic will continue to adapt to its clients’ needs and restructure itself as needed to better serve the public.

Jenna Agatep (she/her/hers) is a third-year law student at Northeastern University School of Law. At Northeastern, she is an Associate Editor of the Northeastern University Law Review, an e-board member of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and Human Rights Caucus, and a student attorney in the Community Business Clinic where she also serves as a Teaching Assistant. Prior to law school, Jenna was a Litigation Paralegal at a top 10 Vault 100 law firm; received her master’s in Fashion Law at Fordham University School of Law; and worked at a fashion-tech start-up in business development. Jenna hopes to return to the fashion industry as a legal advocate for ethical and sustainable business models.