Serving North Carolina’s nonprofits during a pandemic

UNC School of Law’s COVID-19 Legal Assistance Project has helped more than 20 nonprofits around the state navigate the pandemic by providing pro bono legal advice and services.

The exterior of the School of Law.
Photo by Steve Exum.

With already tight budgets and limited resources, running a nonprofit during a pandemic is no small feat.

Add in government relief efforts with strict legal qualifications such as the Paycheck Protection Program, and it’s easy to see how difficult it can be for nonprofits to navigate these uncharted waters.

But with the help of the UNC School of Law’s new COVID-19 Legal Assistance Project, North Carolina-based nonprofits are getting pro bono legal advice and services to help their organizations this summer. The project already has assisted more than 20 nonprofits around the state.

The Tar Heel State.“Even though there are many people and many businesses suffering and in need of legal guidance during this crisis, we figured that nonprofit organizations tend to have the leanest budgets. They tend not to have access to expert legal advice,” said Tom Kelley, Carolina’s James Dickson Phillips, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law, the director of the UNC School of Law Institute for Innovation and the faculty supervisor of the Community Development Law Clinic. “We thought that’s where the law school could really have the most impact.”

Seven Carolina law students work on the project, which launched in May and will run through mid-July. The students are divided into three teams, and each team assists three to four clients at a time, providing legal advice on topics like the federal CARES Act, loan forgiveness and safe reopening procedures.

Full-time attorneys from national law firm Troutman Pepper work alongside the students to serve clients.

As North Carolina entered into its phased reopening in recent months, Nisha Shah, a third-year law student from Boston, helped clients navigate liabilities and safety protocols. She said that the pro bono work has allowed her to hone the skills she has learned in law school by providing her with real-life experience.

“We handle everything from the initial contact to doing the research to figuring out what the deliverable for the client is,” Shah said. “This project, and being able to work on a particular issue from start to finish, has been extremely valuable.”

The project also gave Shah and her teammates an opportunity to give back to the North Carolina community.

“I’m not from North Carolina, but I found this project to be amazing in the sense that it’s helping the community that I chose to join by coming to school at Carolina,” Shah said. “It was an opportunity for me to serve the community using my special skills and legal training during this time.”

Donte Jones, a third-year law student from New York City, joined the project after many of the summer internships he applied to canceled their programs due to the pandemic.

Jones worked as a banker in New York for many years before entering law school and is interested in corporate law. His team has primarily assisted clients with financial issues, such as ensuring they follow the proper rules related to government loans under the Paycheck Protection Program and the federal CARES Act.

Jones said the project allowed him to combine his prior interest in corporate law with his desire to help others.

“As a banker, and now as a lawyer, certain paths you take don’t always allow for community service or public interest,” Jones said. “So, when the law school presented this opportunity, it allowed me to gain meaningful experience, but also do meaningful work.”

Kelley said the project, like much of the School of Law’s other outreach programs, was borne out of a desire to serve North Carolinians.

“At the law school, our conversations, at all levels, are largely about how we can better serve the people of North Carolina,” Kelley said. “When this crisis arose, it was only natural for us to help in this way.”