92% of Nonprofits in Washington Need Transactional Legal Services: How You Can Help

Jodi Nishioka, Program Manager at Washington Attorneys Assisting Community Organizations (WAACO), answers a few questions about her organization’s work connecting attorneys with transactional pro bono opportunities with nonprofit organizations in Washington state.

Jodi Nishioka

Jodi Nishioka

Pro Bono Dicta: What’s your 30-second elevator speech for describing  your organization’s mission?

Jodi Nishioka: WAACO gets nonprofit organizations and microenterprises free legal services. There are three components to our work:

  1. WAACO provides business transactional pro bono opportunities to Washington attorneys and pro bono services to nonprofit organizations.  WAACO screens applications from nonprofits for pro bono legal services and offers volunteer lawyers discreet, business transactional pro bono opportunities. Once an attorney volunteers for a particular matter, WAACO connects the nonprofit organization and the volunteer attorney.
  2. WAACO provides pro bono legal consultation to low-income microenterprise business owners in a clinical setting.  WAACO partners with microenterprise support organizations Washington C.A.S.H. and StartZone to provide pro bono legal services to their microenterprise clients in a legal clinic setting.
  3. WAACO provides high-quality legal training opportunities to lawyers and nonprofits on topics relevant to nonprofits and microenterprise businesses. Our legal trainings for attorneys are approved for CLE credits.

How did you become involved with WAACO?

I practiced law for six years. I worked for nonprofit pro bono organizations and enjoyed creating programs for women and children. I left the practice of law to work on program planning in government and the nonprofit sector. I applied for this job two years ago because it brings together my legal skills and my program planning skills.

What do you find to be the barriers that prevent attorneys from taking on pro bono clients?

Time and awareness.

Time: Attorneys are busy people, and it’s difficult to make the time for pro bono work.

Awareness:  There is a misconception that there are no transactional pro bono opportunities for attorneys. Really, it’s a lack of awareness of the transactional pro bono opportunities that are available through WAACO. WAACO is the only pro bono organization that uses attorneys’ business transactional skills in Washington. Many lawyers don’t know about WAACO and the business transactional pro bono opportunities we offer.  WAACO is here to provide screened, discreet business transactional opportunities to Washington attorneys.

How does WAACO attempt to remove these barriers?

WAACO makes it easy for attorneys to take on a discreet pro bono transactional matter. We screen the nonprofit clients to make sure that they meet RPC 6.1 Pro Bono Publico Service requirements by requiring that the nonprofit: 1) has a charitable, community-based purpose; 2) can’t afford to pay for legal services; and 3) is a viable organization.  We also only place single legal matters, so attorneys agree to take on a single legal matter and are not required to represent the nonprofit on an ongoing basis.

Our process saves attorneys time, because they don’t have to look for and screen the clients and they only have to commit to working on a single legal matter.

WAACO is trying to address the lack of awareness issue by increasing our outreach to the legal community, to get the word out that WAACO is here to serve the legal community by providing business transactional pro bono opportunities. We are going to bar section meetings and law firms to talk about the services and pro bono opportunities that WAACO offers.

What area of the law do you see the greatest unmet need for legal help in the nonprofit community?

WAACO published a study last year, The Legal Needs of Nonprofits Serving Low-Income Communities, which found that 92 percent of Washington nonprofits surveyed need business transactional legal services. We also found that there were significant barriers for these nonprofits to access free legal services. This finding is significant, because it shows nonprofits have a tremendous need for pro bono transactional legal services. Given that there are very few legal resources in Washington for nonprofits, there is a huge unmet need. Gonzaga University, Seattle University, and University of Washington law schools all have legal clinics where students can help nonprofit organizations on business transactional issues, but their capacity is limited to a few students every semester.  Other than the law schools, WAACO is the only other free legal resource for nonprofits.

Columbia Legal Services and Appleseed have provided legal advocacy resources on issues of importance to the communities and have worked with nonprofits on these issues, but that is a different type of service.  Columbia Legal Services has done some interesting community development work with nonprofits in the past, but has had to cut back on this work because of budget cuts. WAACO is beginning to provide legal support on community collaborative initiatives that have business transactional legal needs. This is exciting work because it can have great impact in the community. WAACO hopes to grow this work and match up teams of attorneys with communities. So far, WAACO volunteer attorneys have provided legal support to a small lending circle in the African immigrant community, a farm-to-table initiative, and placed-based educational initiatives.

What are the most common legal issues clients bring to WAACO?

Currently, about 40 percent of our clients need help starting up, which means that they need help with incorporation and obtaining their tax-exempt status from the IRS. The other areas nonprofits most need help in are corporate governance, employment, contracts, and risk assessment/liability waivers. In addition to these areas, we get requests for help with real estate, intellectual property, and merger/dissolution issues.

Can you describe how WAACO matches attorney volunteers with nonprofit clients?

Nonprofits apply to WAACO by submitting an application for services.  WAACO staff reviews the application to make sure the nonprofit has a charitable community-based purpose, cannot afford an attorney, is a viable organization, and has an appropriate business transactional legal need.  Once the nonprofit is screened to meet our requirements and is approved, WAACO sends an email to its volunteer attorneys listing the current available pro bono opportunities. Attorneys then let WAACO know they are interested in a particular pro bono opportunity. WAACO sends them information on the client so the attorney can conduct a conflicts check. Once conflicts are cleared, WAACO makes an electronic introduction of the nonprofit and the volunteer attorney. From that point on, the attorney has responsibility of the matter, signs an engagement letter, and provides the legal services. We ask that the attorney report back to WAACO when the matter is completed. WAACO is always available to assist if an attorney has any questions or concerns about the legal issue or the client.

Would you mind sharing your own most rewarding volunteer experience?

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had at WAACO is actually twofold. We were asked to help an African immigrant women’s group, The Kenyan Women’s Association, to establish their tax-exempt status. WAACO found an attorney to help them and the matter went smoothly. Several months after we matched the client with the attorney, the client and one of our Microenterprise Legal Clinic partners, StartZone, came to us and told us about a new community collaborative project that they were working on. They wanted to start a revolving collateral fund for the small businesses in their immigrant community. The Kenyan Women’s Association was taking the lead and had helped the community get a grant to organize this effort. This community group needed attorneys to help them figure out what type of legal entity the collateral fund should be and if there were any banking or tax regulations that they needed to be aware of. WAACO was able to find a team of two attorneys to work with the group. This community effort, called “Community Collateral,” started to get lots of buzz in the community, and what started as a small group of about five community members turned into two Community Collateral funds with 10-12 members each and others waiting to join. The two attorneys enjoyed their work with the community so much that they were going to all the organizing meetings, even if they didn’t need to. It was a rewarding experience for the community, our attorneys, and for WAACO.

Thank you for this opportunity to share information about WAACO. If any of your readers want more information, please feel free to contact me at Jodi@waaco.org and check out our website at www.waaco.org.

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