Pro Bono Spotlight: Arent Fox

The LCCRSF-Arent Fox pro bono work exemplifies the tremendous possibilities through pro bono partnership, particularly during a crisis. The partnership began in Fall 2019 with a general overview of LCCRSF’s pro bono work and opportunities to engage. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. One year later, Arent Fox has provided essential information on lease negotiation to 200 small business owners by leading eight separate webinars, as well as commercial lease-related advice to dozens of individual small businesses impacted by the pandemic through LCCRSF’s clinic events and our attorney matching program. Arent Fox’s expert attorneys know firsthand how critical support for small businesses is, and have worked with LCCRSF’s Legal Services for Entrepreneurs Program during this critical time.

Their collaboration with LCCRSF is a reflection of Arent Fox’s commitment to pro bono work that has been essential to its legal practice since the firm’s founding 78 years ago. 

“For many of the small business owners we meet with, their life’s work and savings are on the line ,” says Jake Christensen, an Associate at Arent Fox and a member of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee. “Small businesses are what make the neighborhoods that we live in. Losing these important threads in the social fabric of our neighborhoods is detrimental to identities of our cities as a whole. It’s important for us to do what we can to try to help keep these businesses going so they are able to get back on their feet once the restrictions recede.” 

Christensen has taken on a leadership role with the Legal Services for Entrepreneurs program, conducting eight multilingual webinars on lease negotiation through a partnership with the City of Oakland and providing hour-long lease consultations to small businesses looking to renegotiate their leases.  

For Arent Fox Associate Susan Tran, whose own parents are small business owners, working with small businesses hits home. Since the pandemic began, Tran has focused on supporting her own community, providing consultations to Vietnamese businesses struggling with lease negotiations, including local nail salons, hair salons, daycares, and shoe stores.  

“They really needed somebody who could speak their language,” Tran emphasized, who said many of the Vietnamese business owners she has worked with were low-income immigrants who spoke limited English. “It’s been very rewarding to help the people in my own community. They appreciate me so much, but they don’t realize how much I appreciate them — I’m getting to help businesses that I frequent.”  

Oakland Chinatown, 2020.

Owned by a caring Vietnamese woman, one longstanding San Francisco daycare has been hard hit by the pandemic after having to close due to COVID restrictions earlier this year. Although she was able to receive some loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, she still didn’t have sufficient funds to make ends meet for rent and reached out to the LSE program for assistance. Tran assisted in formulating a letter for her to send to the landlord to renegotiate her lease. Upon reading the letter, the businessowner was moved to tears, who told Tran, “You wrote this letter as if it was your own battle.” 

In many ways, the battle to save small businesses does feel like Tran’s own. “She could be my mom. My parents never had this type of support or help. So many of our clients are immigrants and they just don’t have any resources — it’s up to us to do this work.”  

The daycare is just one story of so many businesses that are struggling. In the Bay Area, high rent costs threaten to displace thousands of small businesses owned by low-income people of color. Many of these small business owners are forced to choose between paying rent, or buying food for their families; many have also reported that their commercial landlords are unwilling to negotiate lease modifications, including deferring or forgiving rent as it becomes due. Some landlords have even refused to respond to tenants when asked to negotiate, or filed suit against the business owner demanding money damages for back rent, despite still-in-effect commercial eviction moratoria in many Bay Area cities.  

The partnership between LCCRSF and Arent Fox has also opened doors for more attorneys in the firm’s San Francisco office to get involved in pro bono work. Jumping into small business negotiations has been a perfect fit for Arent Fox Associate Matthew Stone, whose specialization in land use has left him hard pressed to find a good match in pro bono work in the past. However, Stone says, “Being able to help at this time in particular is really meaningful,” especially when he can put his area of expertise to good use. 

“Arent Fox’s pro bono legal services have been instrumental in our response to small businesses in crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tobias Damm-Luhr, LCCRSF’s Legal Services for Entrepreneurs Staff Attorney. “In particular, we are extremely grateful to Jake Christensen for his generous contributions of time, energy, and careful thought in leading his firm’s pro bono involvement in our program.” 

“Tobias and the whole of LCCRSF have been great partners, making sure that we have accurate information, training us on the ins and outs of identifying and responding to the needs of the tenants, and generally offering support so that we can give the best assistance to the folks we’re meeting with,” says Christensen of the partnership. He also encourages other attorneys to get involved in pro bono work at this time, whether through LCCRSF’s programs or other organizations that align with their pro bono interests, especially as small businesses continue to struggle under retightened COVID restrictions.  

“Anyone who has thought about volunteering with LCCRSF won’t regret it. It’s one of the best things I’ve done since I moved to San Francisco. Given the more than 5,000 businesses in the Bay Area that have closed and more still that continue to be at risk given the return of lock downs, we can never have too many lawyers who are willing to help.”  

For opportunities to get engaged in LCCRSF’s Legal Services for Entrepreneurs program, please contact Elica Vafaie at evafaie@lccrsf.org.