Since March of this year, many Davis Polk lawyers have rallied together to provide pro bono advice to help small businesses, nonprofits and individuals affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In this Q&A, Pro Bono Counsel Nancy Marchand discusses this important work.
Can you share some examples of the types of pro bono work we are doing related to the pandemic?
Through several remote clinics, lawyers in our Corporate Department have provided legal advice to small businesses and nonprofits whose operations have been shut down or significantly reduced due to the pandemic and who are seeking financial or other relief. For instance, we have advised them on how to apply for loans and grants under the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program and other financial relief programs. We have also helped small businesses understand their rights under commercial leases and negotiate with their landlords when these businesses are unable to pay rent. During the pandemic, rather than meeting clients in a conference room at a scheduled clinic time as is the traditional clinic practice, our lawyers set up individual phone, WebEx or Zoom meetings with their clinic clients. While these remote operations are new, the clinics continue our longtime partnerships with organizations including Lawyers Alliance of New York, the City Bar Justice Center, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and New York City’s Small Business Services.
We have also helped individuals who have lost their employment or livelihood due to the pandemic to understand their right to expanded unemployment assistance under both state law and the CARES Act. In parallel with these efforts for individual pro bono clients, we have published guides for broad public distribution, including: CARES Act: Relief for Nonprofits and Tax-Exempt Organizations, CARES Act for Gig Workers and Others Who Work for Themselves, and Main Street Support for Nonprofits. Finally, we are assisting frontline workers in preparing end-of-life documents under the supervision of lawyers in our Trusts and Estates Department.
How have law firms worked together to address the many needs during the COVID-19 emergency?
The cooperation among New York City law firms and legal services organizations to address the enormous need of small businesses and nonprofits for legal advice during the pandemic has been an inspiring success in teamwork. For example, Davis Polk is a member of the Small Business Legal Relief Alliance (SBLRA), a pro bono COVID-19 corporate clinic initiated and managed by Stroock & Stroock & Lavan that brings together 25 law firms and seven legal services organizations. The participants allocate assignments based on expertise and availability and share pro bono resources and training materials that may be useful to all. To date, the SBLRA has provided over 400 consults to small businesses in New York City.
Members of the SBLRA have also teamed up for a number of webinars of public benefit. For instance, in June I spoke about the CARES Act Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as part of an SBLRA webinar for New York REACH, a nonprofit supporting small medical practices and community health centers. Lawyers from other SBLRA member law firms spoke about the Paycheck Protection Program, contract issues such as force majeure, and commercial leases. The cooperation among law firms to address public needs is something I really appreciate about the pro bono practice.
Any particularly meaningful projects you would like to share?
It has been meaningful for our corporate attorneys to assist a diverse group of businesses and nonprofits in our New York City neighborhoods, including an after-school art program, a Himalayan craft store, a laundry business, a coffee shop, a sole practitioner family doctor, a nonprofit assisting young adults in high school, and a nonprofit providing small business mentorship to formerly incarcerated people, among others. We have appreciated the opportunity to help small businesses and families across New York City cope with the dire economic consequences of the pandemic in our own small way, by helping them navigate government relief programs and understand their legal rights.
Another aspect of our lives that the pandemic has disrupted is the upcoming election. How has COVID-19 affected our annual voter protection work?
Traditionally, Davis Polk has operated a New York State call center on Election Day as part of the nonpartisan Election Protection voter hotline program organized and run by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The program helps voters understand the voting process, from registration to mail-in ballots to issues at polling stations, and the pandemic only makes these issues more challenging. This year, instead of volunteers working together in noisy, bustling conference rooms, our team of almost 300 volunteers, including Davis Polk lawyers, alumni, paralegals and summer associates, as well friends and colleagues from other New York firms and legal departments, will take voter calls from their home computers and communicate with the central call center via a chat room during 4-hour shifts.
The logistics of a remote call center have been challenging, to say the least, but the enthusiasm of our volunteers for preserving citizens’ right to vote during a pandemic has been truly energizing.