Transactional Law as a Tool for Economic Empowerment

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A small business is threatened with closure after the landlord raises the rent, but after getting legal assistance around renegotiating the lease and overdue bills, the owner can stay in business. Entrepreneurs living in public housing are barred from operating businesses out of their homes, but advice on how to formalize their businesses helps them to move into incubator spaces or community kitchens.

These are a few of the cases from clients served by the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at Columbia Law School. Through this clinic law students develop practical legal skills as they support under-resourced entrepreneurs who are committed to strengthening their communities through economic development, but lack access to essential legal services.

The founding director of the clinic is Lynnise Pantin, Pritzker Pucker Family Clinical Professor of Transactional Law at Columbia Law School and National Hunger Fellow Alum. “The goal, first of all, is for students to learn how to be great lawyers,” she explains, “but in activating that goal, we also think about who we could help.”

The journey that brought Lynnise to where she is now has been shaped by her experience as a Hunger Fellow. “The value of the fellowship for me was to understand the nature of the problem,” she explains. “Understanding the people I’m interested in serving was part of the fellowship, but also understanding the players and who are the people that are participating in the solution. That was really critical. I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now.”

As she prepared to graduate from Pomona College in the spring of 1998, Lynnise was convinced to apply to the National Hunger Fellowship1 through a phone call with then-director Azad Oommen. She was glad she did. Orientation introduced her to a host of new concepts and ideas, not to mention elected officials including Rep. Ron Dellums, Sen. Bob Dole, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. “We met with so many members of Congress, and the access to change seemed really cool,” she reflects.

For her field placement she worked with the Hunger Action Coalition, a coalition of emergency food providers in the Detroit metro area, a region which was in desperate need of assistance at the time. “I grew up in Chicago, and had no idea,” she says. “The destitution of it. It was like a city where people had gotten up and walked away, and didn’t come back. Just empty buildings.”

Lynnise’s supervisor, Nida Donar, gave her the job of developing public service announcements for local radio stations to raise awareness of summer food and other food assistance benefits. She threw herself into her work, locating pro bono recording studio time and volunteer voice actors to record the ads. “I think she was really surprised that two months after I was tasked with the thing, we had the PSAs,” she recalls. “Then we unrolled this marketing strategy. Mind you, I had no idea how to do this stuff—I’m just reading books about how to assemble press packets and press releases!”

Lynnise then returned to Washington, D.C., for her placement with Bread for the World. “At this point, everyone had an eye on Y2K. There was an international campaign by countries in the Global South called Jubilee 2000, which was about asking for debt forgiveness at the turn of the millennium. I learned a lot about organizing, a lot about voice and who speaks for who in that situation.”

One way the fellowship shaped her perspective was being exposed to so many people working for social change through the legal profession. “I kept meeting lawyers everywhere. Looking at the landscape, it was lawyers who were making things happen. And when I was in Detroit, I felt like everyone I met who was about anything had gone to law school.”

After earning her J.D. from Columbia in 2003, she began practicing corporate and securities law at a large firm, and quickly found that adversarial lawyering was not for her. She relates the experience of going to court to represent clients in two pro bono immigration asylum cases: “They each caused me to have a migraine, physical anxiety—this is not the way that I like to work,” she recalls. “Some people love to argue. They love to figure out a way to win and be persuasive. That’s not me. I like to draft. I’m detail-oriented.

“That’s how this came about. Thinking about who I am as a person, how I want to be in the world, but also what skills I have to offer the communities I care about. That started my growth as a transactional lawyer, being in service of social justice.”

Lynnise left the firm and started teaching legal writing at New York Law School. Before long she’d spotted a gap in the legal pedagogy of the day. “We’d teach all of these litigation skills in law school,” she notes, “but I would say the majority of lawyers are not litigators. They’re doing legislation, or public policy, or transactional. So law schools were learning in the mid-2000s that we needed to have some form of non-litigation experience for our students.”

She shares her perspective on the connections between legal education, transactional law, and social justice in a 2017 article for the Villanova Law Review2: “Historically, at least in popular culture, bringing about justice has been understood to mean using the law for social change in an adversarial context: the courtroom.” But, she argues, lawyering in service to economic justice should be defined more broadly to include providing civil legal services to entrepreneurs from under-resourced groups. “Economic empowerment is a means to escape poverty as opposed to subsist in it. This is where the transactional lawyer comes in.” More to the point, that’s the rationale for expanding legal education to include experience in transactional law in the service of public interest and community development.

To fill this gap, Lynnise co-founded a transactional clinic at New York Law School, and directed the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law. She went on to start the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic at Boston College Law School, then returned to Columbia Law as full-time faculty in 2019, where she launched the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic.

Through the clinic, students have been able to help nearly 200 startups and small businesses since 2019. These entrepreneurs receive assistance with incorporation, employment law, trademark applications, contracts, and other legal issues that they otherwise would not have been able to afford. Beyond individual cases, her clinic also takes on larger-scale projects to benefit the broader community, such as workshops around community benefits agreements, forming workers co-ops, and becoming certified minority- and women-owned businesses.

The perspective that motivates her work she traces back to her early experiences, including the fellowship. “I could say honestly that experience informs the work I’m doing now,” she says, “in terms of thinking about who I am in service of, and remembering all the folks I met along the way during the fellowship. That’s what I believe the fellowship did for me. I got perspective on the problem, and then also the participants in the solution.”

For young leaders considering the fellowship, she rates her experience highly. “It’s such an opportunity to get access to change-makers, and also to be part of change when you’re young. When you’re in your 20s, you are dealing in big ideas and big words. Getting the opportunity to be on the ground and provide meaning to those ideas and those words, I think that is really invaluable.”


 

  1. Then named in memory of Rep. Mickey Leland. []
  2. Lynnise E. Phillips Pantin, The Economic Justice Imperative for Transactional Law Clinics, 62 Vill. L. Rev. 175 (2017), available online here. []

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