AUWCL Clinics Help Region Access Aid Amid COVID
This story appears in the Fall 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, The Advocate
In early May 2020, analyses with headlines shouting “Here's How the Small Business Loan Program Went Wrong” were ubiquitous, as leaders in media, business, and policy examined the various faults of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The Los Angeles Lakers and Shake Shack got loans, banks received billions in fees, and money was given to thriving, rather than struggling, companies (NPR, May 4, 2020). But many small business owners trying to keep afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic were struggling to gain access to these much-needed loans. To them, red tape, complicated processes, and changing government rules created an unruly roadblock.
And so entered the Community and Economic Development Law Clinic (CEDLC) and the new Entrepreneurship Law Clinic (ELC) at AUWCL. CEDLC and ELC student attorneys assist small businesses and nonprofit organizations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia in the areas of corporate, commercial, and general transactional law. Strong existing relationships with local businesses and community organizations helped the clinics’ professors and student-attorneys quickly ascertain the many challenges COVID-19 presented.
“We recognized that small businesses and workers were being severely harmed by the pandemic and the related shutdowns,” said Joseph Pileri, practitioner-in-residence in the CEDLC. “There were a lot of questions in the community about how to access emergency assistance like the Paycheck Protection Program and other business and nonprofit grants to help lessen the financial blow. There were also numerous questions such as ‘How do I reopen and run my business during a pandemic in a way that is safe and legal?’”
Providing legal resources to small business and nonprofits in the DMV area during the pandemic became a priority, as did pooling resources to reach a broad population. The result was the launch of a new Transactional Law Clinic Collaborative.
Comprised of AUWCL’s Community and Economic Development Law Clinic and new Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, as well as Georgetown Law’s Social Enterprise and Nonprofit Law Clinic, the Collaborative is helping small business owners navigate a wide range of government programs to receive needed support.
“I am proud that this project maintains the social justice mission of the Washington College of Law Clinical Program.”Professor Priya Baskaran
“There is a feeling of apprehension among the small business community. We found that there were a lot of general resources out there to navigate the federal funds, but they were not very accessible,” said Professor Priya Baskaran, director of the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic. “There was a gap in assembling state guidance and resources, and we wanted to make sure people were aware of the special programs available in D.C., especially for individual workers and those in the gig economy.”
A New Resource
The Clinics—with the help and determination of student workers Quinn Miller ’21, Grace Payne ’21, and Nicholas Sullivan ’21—developed online materials aimed at assisting workers and small businesses that ranged from construction contract workers, home daycare providers, and the self-employed, all the way to more established businesses that need guidance about the constantly changing rules attached to federal, state, and local funding. The resources developed include accessible one-pagers and videos that help navigate the digital divide.
“One of the biggest problems with these loans is a lot of people don’t understand what you can use them for,” Baskaran said. Spelling out these rules was one of the goals of the Collaborative’s initial public communications. For instance, a fact sheet about the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA) includes sections about who can apply and how exactly the funds can be utilized.
“The PPP is largely just to help you make your payroll, but it doesn’t help you pivot your business to operate in a pandemic world,” Baskaran said. “It doesn’t give you funds to go out and purchase lots of PPE or build plexiglass dividers or determine how to move your business to an ecommerce model, because the money is intended to make sure people can pay their bills. But then the question becomes, ‘Where can I get the funds to ensure my business can survive under these new circumstances?’”
That is where the state programs—like D.C. mortgage relief program or commercial tenant relief programs—can come into play and help a business piece together a new model going forward. Many options exist on the state, county, and city level, and through the Transactional Law Clinic Collaborative, AUWCL is striving to help those in need identify the best resources for them and guide them through the decision-making process.
The Perfect Pre-Clinic Project
With their summer plans sidelined due to COVID-19, rising 3Ls Sullivan, Miller, and Payne reached out to Professors Pileri and Baskaran to inquire about working over the summer, prior to joining the Clinic this fall.
Payne knew that the Community and Economic Development Law Clinic would be hiring students for summer positions when she applied for the course. When her summer employment fell through due to the pandemic, an email to the Clinic was the first one she sent. Payne has been working on building website tools to help guide small business owners on the use of employee ownership to extend the lives of their businesses.
“I’ve been working almost singularly on unemployment resources,” Sullivan said of his summer role with the new Collaborative. “The big change with the CARES Act was that it addressed the needs of modern workers in the new gig economy. I’ve been working a lot with the unemployment resources available for independent contractors and small business owners.”
Miller said that through his work on the Collaborative, he has learned a great deal about the legislative process. “A lot of the work I’ve done lately has been on “EIDL,” which is Economic Injury Disaster Loans on the Federal level,” he said. Miller noted that one of the challenges is keeping up with local legislation, such as mortgage relief on the city level, that is continuously changing.
A Lasting Impact
When asked what they hope will be the impact of the Collaborative, both the students and professors agreed that the work is not done. But in the end, preventing even one business from having to shut its doors would make the effort worth it.
“I hope that people will gain some piece of mind,” Sullivan said. “There are so many questions out there, and so many resources that we have to sift through to distill into coherent, accessible language. I hope someone can go to [our website] and feel like they have people looking out for them and not have to parse through a ton of legalese.”
Payne agreed. “My hope is that this project means that people can access what’s already been passed, businesses can avoid laying off people, and people can access what they are entitled to,” she said.
“I am proud that this project maintains the social justice mission of the Washington College of Law Clinical Program,” said Professor Baskaran. “What brought us to this project really was assisting vulnerable workers, and then understanding how part of that assistance was inherently tied to small business aid.”
View all of the Transactional Law Clinic Collaborative Resources, which are updated as the laws and resources change, at wcl.american.edu/academics/experientialedu/clinical/theclinics/elc/tlcc.