CHARLOTTE, N.C. — COVID restrictions are slowly lifting as vaccinations increase but many small businesses are still struggling, trying to navigate the complicated legalese of things like loans, liability, and leases.
The North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center is connecting lawyers with small businesses for free, hoping to help keep them afloat.
“It was a pretty rough year for us," said Asia Sheikh, who owns a local indoor recreation facility with a group of friends, aptly named Friends Pavilion.
They built a thriving business, but when COVID hit, so did harsh reality.
“It was a quite a learning curve for us, because to be honest we are first-time business owners," Sheikh said. "With all the state and federal things that were happening, we were trying to understand what's going on, who's eligible and who's not, and whether we fit in or not.”
“We had landlords coming at us with all the legal terminologies which we have no idea what they're talking about," she explained. "No loans getting approved, no relief coming to us.”
Eventually, Sheikh heard the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center is offering free legal advice to nonprofits and small businesses with less than 25 employees.
"I got an immediate response from them and said, okay, hey, tell us what's going on,” Sheikh recalled. "She helped us understand the entire lease, she walked us through what are my options, she advised us to go through some of the loan procedures.”
“They came into our life as angels because we were totally devastated, we had no clarity what's going on.”
Katherine Asaro, senior staff attorney for the pro bono center, says the program has been a great success.
“We started in May, we actually today just hit 200 clients," Asaro said. “To afford an attorney is a very expensive, indulgence for a lot of people. Everyone knows that small businesses, nonprofits are the backbone of our economy of our state...and so the attorneys really wanted to help.”
Asaro says they’re helping businesses navigate things like loan applications, lease disputes, liability requirements, insurance, and more.
“Unfortunately, we started getting more and more about dissolution and bankruptcy," she said. “There are some benefits that are available to them, or different sources of income and funding to help. But a to know what those are, that's almost a full time job.”
For many business owners like Sheikh, the program was a saving grace.
“If this business clinic would not have been there, then I don't see where we would be," Sheikh said. "We need to share this with more people. At this time when everything is going south, we need help. We need people who have compassion.”
Asaro says small businesses and nonprofits with less than 25 employees can apply online.
“To have that conversation and to really help guide people in the right direction, it can be invaluable, and could be the difference between a business surviving right now and not," she said.
To request a consult with a pro bono attorney, fill out this request form.