Start Small Think Big Legal Program
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. A year later, over half a million individuals in the United States have died from the disease and the death toll worldwide surpasses 3 million. We mourn for those we have lost.
For millions in the U.S., and certainly within small business communities, the toll of the pandemic has also been financial. Hope, for small business owners, has often taken the form of access to federal programs launched in response to the pandemic, with the promise of providing much needed financial relief. Yet the history, legacy and continued reality of racial inequity in the U.S. unsurprisingly results in racial inequities when it comes to accessing opportunities for relief. Recognizing and helping to dismantle these and other structural barriers to entrepreneurial success for BIPOC small business owners is a core component of our work at Start Small Think Big. This is where we continue to invite our pro bono attorneys to situate the provision of transactional legal services when volunteering through our programs.
FEDERAL FINANCIAL RELIEF FOR U.S. SMALL BUSINESSES
Navigating the complexities of keeping small business ventures afloat during the pandemic has also entailed navigating quickly evolving routes for financial relief. At the federal level, key offerings today include the following:
We, along with attorney volunteers at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Lowenstein Sandler LLP, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are working to keep track of and disseminate information about options for relief, particularly the PPP.
On January 11, 2021, over 150 days after an initial application period closed, the PPP re-opened. On February 22, the Biden-Harris administration announced changes to the program specifically geared at helping to ensure more equitable access to funding for Black- and Brown-owned small businesses, and those micro-businesses employing fewer than 10 employees. Since the announcement, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has issued guidance and rules implementing these changes, including to increase potential loan amounts for self employed borrowers, sole proprietors and independent contractors. Crucially too, on March 30 the PPP Extension Act was signed into law, further extending the PPP loan application deadline to May 31.
Much has changed since the initial launch of the PPP in April 2020. At each turn however, there have been and there remain monumental barriers to access for Black small business owners, and other business owners of color, particularly those operating in historically disenfranchised, marginalized and underbanked communities. Recent changes may be critical steps in the right direction towards a more equitable distribution of PPP funds. Initial lapses and disparities to access, however, carry lasting consequences that must be addressed head-on in order to be redressed.
ADVANCING JUSTICE THROUGH TRANSACTIONAL LEGAL SERVICES
Between April 2020 and today, Start Small Think Big assisted close to 650 small businesses, 42% Black-owned, 95% BIPOC- or women-owned. Our legal program works to support small business legal needs including by activating and leveraging a robust network of pro bono attorney volunteers, including at law firms of all sizes and bar associations. Since April 2020, attorneys have assisted small businesses by volunteering in more than 1,000 Legal Program consultations. Through a number of free webinars opened to the general public, they have helped bridge critical access and information gaps when it comes to these avenues for relief.
In September 2020 and March 2021, we along with Lowenstein Sandler LLP, delivered two letters to U.S. elected officials. With the support of a number of community partners, we urged first for the re-opening, then for the extension of the PPP. In both instances, we called for improvements to the PPP, informed by and responsive to, the needs of Black small business owners and other small business owners of color disproportionately left out from opportunities for relief.
In the continued struggle for a just and equitable economic recovery during and after COVID, there is an important role to be played by attorneys. Our call to action is to deliver transactional legal services and advocate on behalf of small business clients through the lens and in pursuit of racial, economic and social justice.