Students in the Community Development Clinic gain practical experience through their client interactions with “innovators and changemakers”
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a whopping 99.9% of American companies, some 32.5 million, are considered small businesses that employ nearly 62 million people. Those small businesses, along with nearly two million nonprofit organizations, provide careers and opportunities and play a vital role in strengthening their communities.
UMass Law’s Community Development Clinic (CDC) is one of five in-house clinics where law students gain practical experience working with clients under the supervision of a professor for one semester. Headed by Visiting Professor of Law Lisa Owens, the central mission of the clinic is to serve nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and startup businesses in the SouthCoast, which are unlikely to access legal services because of the costs and to help them navigate the transactional legal matters that these organizations sometimes face.
The Community Development Clinic’s services include drafting corporate documents, conducting legal audits, establishing board roles and responsibilities, preparing state and federal filings, researching legal issues, and reviewing contracts. In addition to the clinic, students attend a weekly two-hour seminar, which provides training in the skills necessary for representation, legal drafting and public speaking, and reflections on and consideration of ethical issues arising in practice.
In one project, Owens explained, the clinic helped a small business owner with the fundamentals of growing their business and managing liability. The clinical fellows were able to advise and offer insight into the kind of business structure that would be most beneficial in the present and as the company expanded. “We were also able to review and advise on some legal matters that the client had turned previously to online sources to address and to help him avoid some common problems that individuals can face when using these sources.
“Our clients are sometimes just laying the foundation of their businesses and nonprofits; however, we also have clients who are well-established nonprofits undergoing growth and transitions,” Owens added. “We’ve helped a nonprofit organization navigate complex needs related to an expansion requiring a multiple entity structure. When expanding operations, nonprofits have unique considerations related to their tax status. We’ve assisted our non-profit clients in confidently taking steps related to an expansion of their mission.”
Client gives law students an A+ for their assistance
When Justina Perry was establishing her new nonprofit organization, Buy Black New Bedford, a free community resource based in New Bedford, MA that serves Black-owned businesses across the SouthCoast region, she turned to the CDC.
Since its inception in June 2020, Buy Black New Bedford has connected consumers with more than 200 local Black-owned businesses through events, fundraisers, and networking.
Students in the law clinic reviewed the organization’s current structure, listened to their goals, and helped set up a framework. “While we were not able to resolve all of the issues within the semester, they set up a plan for our next steps,” said Perry. “I give the students an A+.”
The clinic also worked with Atefeh Rhamani, who earned a bachelor of science degree in software engineering from UMass Dartmouth. While she was earning a master’s degree in computer science, also at UMassD, Rhamani was building a nonprofit to help Afghan students navigate the American higher education system.
“I remember when I was a teenager and planning to do my higher education in the United States, not a single organization, academy, or resource existed to guide me,” she said. “I just needed information, someone to tell me—and thousands of Afghan students like me— when, where, how, what I should I do.”
In August 2021, schools in Afghanistan shut down and all female students were banned from education. Rhamani began holding Zoom meetings and group chats, providing educational consultation and other services like application, fellowship, scholarship, and essay writing guidance for Afghan students seeking higher education in the United States.
When Neal Gouck, assistant dean of the Charlton College of Business, heard about Rhamani’s work, he advised her to continue as a nonprofit organization to gain more support. He introduced Rhamani to UMass Law’s Community Development Clinic.
“We held the first meeting in September with Dr. Owens and two student fellows, Andrew Ashkar and Jim Brady,” said Rhamani. “While I didn’t have any idea about a nonprofit organization, they started the work by putting together the bylaws and Articles after hearing my story and understanding what needed to be done. Andrew and Jim worked hard and communicated well to take care of everything and made sure what they were writing was according to my preferences and target goals during the process.
“On December 16, the CDC made my day by giving me the good news that the Secretary of State has accepted the Articles. The Ibn Sina Higher Education Resources is now real a dream that came through with the help of the Community Development Law Clinic members,” she said.
It’s that kind of experiential learning Owens hopes to provide to UMass Law students. “My goal in the clinic is for it to be a place where innovative approaches to learning ‘how to be’ an attorney are developed and a place for students to learn how to deliver legal services and interact with clients in a productive and efficient way. The clinic exists to support innovators and changemakers in our own community by providing high quality legal services.”
First opportunity for law students to gain practical experience in working with clients
“For some, this is the first opportunity they will have to work directly with clients. The clinic offers a chance for students to receive on-the-ground, practical training in the practice of law,” said Owens, a former lecturer at Columbia University and visiting researcher at Harvard University. “As well, the clinic teaches students to reflect on the kind of professional they want to be as they are guided to seek perspective in their legal judgment and practice from myself and from their peers as well as through exercises which encourage introspection and reflection. Finally, I hope that the clinic teaches students about some of the inequities built into the practice of law and inspires them to engage in pro bono work in the future as they become established in their careers.”
Stephanie Sabino, JD candidate ’23 of Quincy, MA, is considering a career in tax law and decided to apply to the clinic. “Due to the business nature of the matters we deal with in the clinic, I think it aligns perfectly with what I want to do post-graduation,” she said.
During the fall semester, Sabino and her partner worked on a business merger. They sat in on meetings to discuss merger proposals and drafted business plans and merger agreements for their client to accomplish his goals.
“The primary lesson I have learned throughout this semester is how to lead a business meeting and how to best represent my client’s interest,” said Sabino.
“In my opinion, small businesses and nonprofits are an essential pillar to every community,” she added. “They encourage community engagement and many times uplift marginalized sectors of the community itself leading by example and showing people that they too can pursue their dreams and aspirations if they really want to.”
Nicole Egan, JD candidate ’23 of Millis, MA currently works as an in-house paralegal at a publicly traded company in the semiconductor and test inspection markets. A part-time law student, she chose the CDC for its flexible hours and alignment with her career interests.
Egan and her partner engaged in substantive legal research, including topics recently litigated as first impression cases in areas of corporate and municipal law. First impression cases present emerging legal issues that have not ever been brought before the court. They also participated in drafting and presenting solutions related to complex real estate transactions.
“The clinic provided strong practical experience that corresponds with what I have studied in the classroom and expanded upon the skills I have learned outside of law school over the course of my paralegal career,” said Egan.
“The most rewarding part was how appreciative our clients were to receive our assistance in furtherance of their goals to benefit the local community. Small businesses and nonprofits promote a sense of belonging in their neighborhoods while also benefitting the public,” she added.