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How Vinson & Elkins is Lending a Hand to Small Businesses — and Law Students — in a Unique Pro Bono Program

A balloon shop. A photography studio. A bar. None of these fit the profile of a typical Vinson & Elkins client.

“I think it’s easy, particularly with corporate work, to get caught up in the complicated transactions that we work on. It’s nice to step back and do something where you have a little bit more of a personal connection, where you feel like you’re really helping somebody.”

But the firm is not only helping small businesses like these get up and running, it’s offering law students practical legal experience along the way.

V&E has joined forces with the Walker Program, a community initiative launched in 2020, that aims to jumpstart businesses owned by people of color in Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County, Virginia. Named for Harry Lee and Eliza Walker — prominent Black business owners in Lexington in the early 1900s — the program offers free business training, grant funding, and pro bono legal services to local entrepreneurs.

Rather than simply pairing businesses with lawyers, the Walker Program has partnered with Lexington-based Washington and Lee University School of Law (“W&L Law”) to create a learning opportunity for W&L Law second and third-year students. Under the supervision of V&E lawyers and W&L Law professor Carliss Chatman, students assist the local businesses on such matters as drafting organizational documents, negotiating leases, and obtaining permits.

W&L Law School Professor Carliss Chatman and business owner Trevor Stores who is receiving legal advice from students and V&E lawyers.

“It’s a win-win for both the students and the business owners,” said V&E senior associate Caroline Bailey, one of three V&E lawyers from the firm’s Capital Markets and Mergers & Acquisitions practice who volunteer their time. “The students are challenged to proactively identify and address issues that impact these business owners as they navigate their new business. The business owners are afforded practical guidance and a legal framework to proceed with their business initiatives.”

V&E was offered the opportunity to lend its pro bono legal services to the Walker Program by Chatman, a V&E alum. The law professor serves on the advisory board of the Walker Program and teaches a one-hour class to program participants on legal basics.

Chatman came up with the idea of having students in her Mergers and Acquisitions Practicum class work with the business owners. In doing so, she would be able to provide additional legal guidance to the Walker Program entrepreneurs while at the same time giving her students hands-on corporate law experience. When it came time to look for a law firm to oversee the students, V&E was first on her list.

V&E Pro Bono Counsel Ellyn Josef “was all in with joining me on this experiment and just seeing how it worked, which I appreciate,” Chatman said. “I had faith that it would be a good opportunity for the lawyers. Because you really do make such a major difference in these peoples’ lives.”

Bailey, as well as V&E partner Greg Cope and V&E counsel Zach Swartz, got to work starting in the fall 2021 semester and have so far supervised a total of 17 students who in turn have advised approximately 15 entrepreneurs.

The students are challenged to think beyond what they’ve learned from textbooks, simulating in many ways what it feels like to be a junior associate at a law firm. They’re tasked with conducting intake interviews, preparing memos, and proposing next steps for handling a business owner’s particular legal needs.

“They’re not provided with any sort of rubric or template of what to think about in terms of the issues facing these business owners,” Bailey said. “It’s truly outside-of-the-textbook thinking — using the skill sets that they have to proactively identify these issues, with our help.”

In some instances, students have exceeded the expectations of the lawyers. One of the business owners wants to start a mobile car detailing business that provides a suite of services including car washes. The students advising the Walker Program participant identified early on a not-so-obvious legal issue: The company needed to satisfy certain legal requirements related to environmental laws, including potentially obtaining a permit.

“I’ve been very impressed with the work that the students have done, how they’ve communicated with clients, and how thorough they’ve been,” Cope said.

Likewise, the V&E lawyers have received high marks. “I would give them all A’s,” Chatman said. “It’s been such an amazing experience. It’s just going so seamlessly.”

Both Cope and Bailey have a personal connection to Washington and Lee University. Bailey received her Bachelor of Science degree in Business from the university’s Williams School, and her husband is a graduate of the law school, while Cope’s son is currently an undergraduate. “It’s important to me to see the businesses in Lexington thrive,” Bailey said.

To date, the Walker Program has helped start or grow seven businesses in Lexington. The program recently welcomed its third cohort of entrepreneurs and received its first grant, $100,000, to be used to hire more staff and secure office space.

The V&E lawyers say they’ve personally gained from working with the students and business owners.

“A lot of what we do on a daily basis has an indirect benefit to society — for example, helping large corporate clients achieve their business goals provides employment opportunities and other benefits to communities,” Cope said. “But working one-on-one with these small business owners is an example where we, as corporate lawyers in a large law firm, can provide direct, tangible benefits to individuals and the communities they serve.”

“I think it’s easy, particularly with corporate work, to get caught up in the complicated transactions that we work on,” Bailey added. “It’s nice to step back and do something where you have a little bit more of a personal connection, where you feel like you’re really helping somebody.”

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.