Students Provide Virtual Help to Small Businesses Hard Hit By COVID-19 Pandemic
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and statewide stay-at-home order, business is booming for a Minnesota Law program that offers free legal advice sessions to local small business owners.
Last January, the Law School launched “Brief Advice Sessions,” a program in which small business owners receive pro bono legal consultations with law students, supervised by Emily Buchholz ’10, executive director of Minnesota Law’s Corporate Institute. Sessions with business owners typically last between 30 and 45 minutes, according to Buchholz. “We help them identify and prioritize issues, develop next steps, and connect with local resources.”
Small businesses helped so far this semester include several pop-up food vendors, a distillery, a medical device inventor, a hair and nail technician, several nonprofit start-ups, and a professional women’s development group.
When classes went remote in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so did Brief Advice Sessions, moving from in-person meetings to videoconferences on Zoom. The transition was relatively easy, according to Buchholz. “Sometimes we have a bad connection, or work with people who aren’t used to using technology. But overall, we’re thrilled to be able to continue to work with small businesses during this time and Zoom has allowed us to do that.”
Buchholz says that the needs of small businesses, which have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, are massive. “Many have been forced to lay off employees or to close altogether. Many have struggled to find ways to pay for their basic needs. And with those new realities comes an increased demand for help and guidance.”
Students participating in the program say they have noticed a qualitative difference in the type of advice that business owners seek since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Recently, our work has centered on the changes stemming from COVID-19 and its economic impact on small businesses around the Twin Cities,” says David Woger, 3L. “Businesses are focused on adapting to these changes by increasing their online presence and finding creative solutions to reach clients.”
Jessica Swanson, 3L, says recent conversations with small business owners “have revolved around helping them locate and navigate resources regarding unemployment insurance benefit applications, insurance, and federal or small business loan programs.”
Topics the students have researched and discussed include the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Paycheck Protection Program, and the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Grants.
Swanson says the opportunity to connect with and help real-world business owners has been the most meaningful aspect of her participation in the program. “It has been such a great and practical experience to learn about the basic legal needs and concerns business owners have. I intend to practice business law, so this experience has better prepared me to anticipate and assist with the type of legal and business needs my clients may have in the future.”
Woger also appreciates the direct client contact the program has afforded him. “Our Brief Advice Sessions allow students like myself to apply our knowledge of the legal issues facing these businesses, which do incredible work for our community. To be a part of their work in any way is something I am very proud of and I hope that working with small businesses can become a part of my career.”
—By Mark A. Cohen