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Insights Shared by NELP Volunteer Victor Metsch on Pro Bono Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

by The Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project September 9, 2021

The Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP) provides free legal support to New Yorkers of limited economic means who seek to achieve financial stability through entrepreneurship. By providing free legal services to microentrepreneurs in communities that have been traditionally disenfranchised, we help them to achieve financial independence and break the cycle of poverty created by systemic inequality, while bringing jobs and services to the communities they live and work in.

Through NELP, the City Bar Justice Center’s (CBJC) COVID-19 Small Business Remote Legal Clinic (the CV-19 Clinic) created in partnership with Lawyers for Good Government and Kirkland & Ellis, provided pro bono legal consultations and referrals to over 1,250 small business owners during the pandemic.  The initiative was created to help clients understand and act upon options available under the federal government’s COVID-19 stimulus package and other opportunities available through federal, state and local programs. Over 900 attorneys volunteered to provide pro bono legal assistance to small businesses through the CV-19 Clinic and one volunteer stands out in particular for his commitment to assisting NYC’s small business community and the volume of matters that he assisted on.

Victor M. Metsch, Of Counsel in the Litigation, Alternative Dispute Resolution and Appellate Practices of Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP, volunteered for the CV-19 Clinic in April 2020 and in the time since has provided advice and guidance to many and various small businesses. Victor has spent numerous hours reviewing commercial leases and explaining the ever changing rules and regulations around commercial leasing in NYC to struggling and overwhelmed business owners. Throughout it all, Victor has developed a deeper appreciation of the impact that pro bono work can have in addressing some of the systemic inequalities experienced by small business owners. The following exchange with Victor includes unique insights from his time volunteering with NELP’s CV-19 Clinic and a message to lawyers about doing pro bono work.

1. How did you learn about the City Bar Justice Center and what motivated you to volunteer with NELP?

I first became active in the City Bar in 1969 as an entry-level Associate at Jacobs Persinger & Parker and worked my way through the Committee system to finally serve on the Judiciary Committee. Roger Maldonado, the Immediate Past President of the Association and a colleague at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP, introduced me to the Justice Center and NELP.

2. Can you describe your experience volunteering with NELP on the CV-19 Clinic including frequent issues and themes that came up for clients you provided legal assistance to?

My experience with the COVID Small Business Clinic has been an eye-opener and an awaking to the universe of entrepreneurial people –many first generation Americans for whom English is a second language—whose small street level/walk-in businesses are under the radar in our City. They frequently signed commercial leases, backed by their personal guarantees, without review by counsel. Their initial question often is: how can they be expected to continue to pay rent when State and City Executive Orders effectively shut them down.

3. What do you see in store for small businesses as New York City continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic?

I hope that Federal, State and City rent and other relief funds will give small business owners the opportunity to work out payment plans with their landlords for forgiveness, abatement and/or deferral of rent.

4. Has your perspective or understanding of pro bono changed since the pandemic? Are there insights you’d like to share with other lawyers regarding lessons learned this past year as a volunteer?

I have become more acutely aware of the hard-working men and women who maintain our daily routines and services but are taken for granted, live month-to-month and do not have, and cannot afford, legal assistance.

5. Do you have a message for lawyers that are currently not involved in or have not had the opportunity to engage in pro bono work?

Get involved. Stay involved. Unlike billable hours, the satisfaction from helping other is immeasurable.

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