Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Corporate Social Responsibility at the Grassroots Level

Business law professors who pay attention to social and economic justice issues often must create outlets to voice non-traditional views. For example, law and economics-based corporate law scholarship rarely intersects with progressive, critical scholarship. The Corporate Justice Blog was created to fill the gap. As another example, law students take the basic Business Associations because the subject usually is tested on the bar. Many students expect little from the subject—or their law professors—beyond black letter law coverage. Despite the fiascos at Enron, WorldCom, AIG, and Lehman Brothers—and the disastrous impact on many law students’ ability to receive student loans and to gain legal employment after graduating law school—many students seem unable (or perhaps uninterested given the financial and time pressures students face) to connect a relevant topic, such as corporate social responsibility, to their own lives.

Financial regulatory reforms may succeed eventually in creating more economic justice for disempowered populations. However, such change appears to proceed at a near-glacial pace. Another approach is for law school transactional clinics to work with community-based organizations that promote social and economic justice at the grassroots level.

A small group of general litigation clinic students at Capital University Law School requested an opportunity to work with individuals seeking assistance with transactional matters. In September 2009, two general litigation clinic attorneys (Professors Danny Bank Lorie McCaughn), two business law professors (Professor Grant, a blogger on this blog and I) and one of the founders of the litigation clinic (Professor Roberta Mitchell) at Capital University Law School formed a team to create the Small Business Clinic Pilot Project. That month, the unemployment rate in central Ohio hovered above 8% (in March 2010, the rate is 9.8%). Perhaps counterintuitively, the demand for business formation and basic contract review was strong even though the unemployment rate was high.

The Small Business Legal Clinic Pilot Project provides students an opportunity to assist individuals who do not qualify for traditional business financing. The pilot project has teamed with the Economic and Community Development Institute, “a registered, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the mission to invest in people to create measurable and enduring social and economic change.” (www.ecdi.org) Between February and March, 2010, ten Economic and Community Development Institute clients have sought and received advice from the Small Business Legal Clinic on matters including business formation and basic contract interpretation.

Clinic students initially may have requested transactional work to gain work experience that would be marketable to law firms. Indeed, under the close supervision of law school faculty, the students take the lead in counseling the business clients. However, the clinic provides an additional benefit to the central Ohio community—students are helping to create economic empowerment within struggling communities in central Ohio. Moreover, the clinic provides students an opportunity to improve interpersonal and counseling skills and develop empathy for individuals from different cultural backgrounds and viewpoints. As these students advance in their legal careers, they may consider how to continue to effect social and economic justice as they advise business clients.


  1. What a fantastic program! I’ve done some research on Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus who were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Professor Yunus created microlending, helping millions of people, mostly women, become entrepreneurs and raise themselves from extreme poverty. Where I live, in South Florida, a microcredit program was recently offered for artists and small businesses unsecured, personal loans from $1,000 to 5,000. Banks such as ACCION USA specialize in microfinance. Often lending to minorities and women, these banks have helped people start successful businesses with as little as $500. I think the current “Great Recession” needs microfinance to create jobs and rebuild the economy. Politicians always talk in big numbers about 10 million jobs lost. I can’t create 10 million jobs, but maybe by someone lending me $1,000, I can start a small business and become self-sufficient and if I succeed, I can hire someone. The theory of small loans fulfilling big dreams has worked for Grameen Bank, and Bangladesh is now on track to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015.

  2. This seems like a great program that will benefit law students with hands on experience and more learning opportunities in the business law sector and it will provide affordable legal representation to low-income communities. I am currently in the Immigration clinic at my law school and I believe its one of the best decisions I made in law school. I have an opportunity to apply the law and help solve complex issues instead of reading some boring old textbook. It feels great helping those less fortunate people that cannot afford an attorney. I can now go into the work force with more confidence knowing that I already have one year of work experience in immigration law. Small Business Clinics are great...the more variety the better and hopefully it will help lessen the stereotype that people who go into Business law are all about making money and helping wealthy shareholders and less about helping low income communities.