Transactional Community Lawyering: Introducing Denver Law’s New Community Economic Development Clinic

Patience A. Crowder[1]

Denver Law’s Clinical Programs began representing clients in 1904.[2] The clinics represent a diverse range of underserved clients through legal services provided by student attorneys under intense faculty supervision. The Community Economic Development (“CED”) Clinic, Denver Law’s only transactional clinic, will join this rich history of legal education and public interest law this fall.[3] CED efforts seek to alleviate poverty and revitalize neighborhoods. The focus is on neighborhood stabilization, revitalization, and redevelopment through the combination of community organizing, physical development projects, and economic development programs. CED efforts are largely transactional and interdisciplinary in nature.[4] Accordingly, the clinic will teach transactional practice skills to students through the representation of nonprofit corporations, community-based associations and enterprises, and small businesses. Students will learn to collaborate with the variety of professionals, such as accountants, necessary to successfully manage and close a CED transaction and represent a small business owner. The clinic’s focus on the legal practice of CED is intended to expose students to the variety of social systems, government programs, and federal, state, and local government laws that impact their clients while encouraging them to think critically about the role of business law in transactional advocacy for the public interest.

The pedagogical goal of the CED Clinic is to use the lens of community lawyering to teach traditional business law[5] concepts and transactional lawyering skills, business lawyering skills such as strategic planning and project management, and social justice concepts. “[C]ommunity lawyering is an approach to the practice of law and to clinical legal education that centers on building and sustaining relationships with clients, over time, in context, as a part of and in conjunction with communities. It incorporates a respect for clients that empowers them and assists them in the larger economic, political, and social contexts of their lives, beyond their immediate legal problems.”[6] CED uses community lawyering to facilitate social change,[7] and CED Clinics are meaningful social justice tools for two equally important reasons. First, CED clinics provide valuable and urgently needed legal services to under-resourced entrepreneurs, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other community-based entities. Second, CED clinics educate and train students to become problem solvers who may later participate in CED efforts as practitioners, pro bono attorneys providing transactional legal services, or informed citizens in their own neighborhood. Regardless of their chosen career path, students are better prepared to practice law and be better public citizens. 

The CED Clinic will provide both challenging client work and a rigorous classroom component to expose students to substantive legal concepts related to community economic development and business law. Students will learn that, in the realm of business law, transactional lawyering is “preventive lawyering,” meaning lawyering that avoids litigation or other negative outcomes that can arise during the course of a business deal or afterwards. They will also learn to understand the intersection between traditional business law concepts and CED practice, such as the increasing participation of state governments in venture capital financing of small businesses. Client work may include drafting corporate formation documents; assisting nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt applications and maintenance of tax-exempt status; drafting and negotiating contracts; acting as general counsel to nonprofit corporations and small businesses; working with state and local government agencies; and assisting with community-oriented real estate transactions and other transactions related to economic development and redevelopment projects. In addition, students may research issues related to public policies that affect clinic clients and provide community education workshops on substantive law issues pertinent to the clinic’s practice areas. Students will also learn practice skills, including client counseling, negotiation, research and planning, drafting, advocacy, and understanding the role of culture and group dynamics. The clinic is being designed to teach students the fundamentals of transactional practice, and students who matriculate through the CED Clinic will be able to transfer the knowledge and skills that they learn to a variety of transactional practices -- whether to a corporate practice in a law firm, a government agency, or a nonprofit organization. 

An essential element of the CED Clinic’s strategic plan is the formation of partnerships with neighborhood organizations, members of the local business community, and local government representatives. These relationships will be important as the CED Clinic works to achieve its clients’ goals. This process is underway, and we are very excited about the relationship that we are cultivating with the Five Points Business District (“FPBD”). FPBD is a nonprofit organization working to revitalize the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver.[8]  Affectionately called the “Harlem of the West,” Five Points has a rich cultural history and is in the midst of a community-based revitalization effort.[9] FPBD recently shepherded the residents of Five Points through an historic community planning process, and is currently moving towards the second phase of its planning process.[10] In preparation for the launch of the clinic, groups of students in my Community Economic Development Seminar are working on some very exciting projects[11] for the FPBD, which include drawing a community asset map[12] and developing a business recruitment strategy to attract start-up and existing businesses to the neighborhood, particularly the historic commercial corridor.[13] The depth of these projects reflects the teaching philosophy that underscores the design of the clinic: effective community lawyers must be intimately familiar with myriad aspects of their clients’ communities and effective business lawyers must be intimately familiar with the nature of their clients’ businesses.                 

The inauguration of the CED clinic is particularly important at this time in history because so many communities in the Denver metropolitan area continue to suffer the consequences of the Great Recession. While the CED Clinic will initially focus on the experience of Denver’s urban communities, we will ultimately extend our services to neighboring communities in surrounding cities with the goal of joining the regional efforts in the area – remaining focused on our dual mission to educate our students and serve our clients.   

 


[1] Assistant Professor of Law & Director, Community Economic Development Clinic, The University of Denver Sturm College of Law. B.A., Georgetown University; J.D., Rutgers University School of Law- Newark. I am especially grateful to Catherine Smith, Robin Walker Sterling, and Eric Franklin for their insightful comments and suggestions about both this essay and throughout the clinic design process. 

[2] See DU Law History, A Legacy of Innovation, available at http://law.du.edu/index.php/about/du-law-history. 

[3] Although growing in number, transactional clinics are still a novelty in legal education. 

[4] There is an experiential learning movement occurring at law schools throughout the country and at Denver Law in particular.  The goal is to increase law students’ access to practical learning opportunities designed to graduate students who are better prepared for practice. See Experiential Learning, Modern Learning at DU Sturm College of Law, available at http://law.du.edu/index.php/academics/experiential-learning. The movement is characterized by the 2007 Carnegie Foundation Report, which is frequently cited in conversations about providing law students with greater exposure to transactional practice and interdisciplinary work. See William M. Sullivan et. al., Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law (2007). 

[5] As evidence of its focus on modern learning opportunities, Denver Law recently launched the Corporate and Commercial Law Program to provide students with more opportunities to learn about business law and transactional lawyering.  See Corporate and Commercial Law Program, available at http://www.law.du.edu/index.php/corporate-and-commercial-law-program.    The CED Clinic is one way that students can satisfy the experiential learning component of the program. 

[6] See Karen Tokarz et. al., Conversations on “Community Lawyering”: The Newest (Oldest) Wave in Clinical Legal Education,    28 Wash. U. J.L. & Pol'y 359, 364 (2008) (citation omitted).  

[7] See William P. Quigley, Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice, 1 DePaul J. for Soc. Just. 7, 20 (2007) (stating that it is a myth that social justice lawyers “are at the cutting edge of social change” versus developing law to reflect social change).  

[8] See Five Points Business District,  http://www.fivepointsbiz.org/

[9] Five Points Business District, The History of Five Points, available at http://www.fivepointsbiz.org/history-culture.html.

[10] See Colleen O'Connor, A Makeover for Five Points: After Years of Revitalization Promises, The Pieces Are Finally Coming Together, Along with Community Support, Denver Post, Nov. 23, 2010, at A1. 

[11] I am currently teaching a Community Economic Development Seminar, along with Whiting Clinical Fellow Eric Franklin. The seminar is not a clinic and is not providing legal representation. The Whiting Clinical Fellow position was made possible by a generous gift from Denver Law alumnus Kenneth Whiting, JD’53. 

[12] A community asset map is a CED tool that inventories and documents the “assets” of a particular community. For this project “asset” means businesses, government agencies, social service and health care providers, educational institutions, and social networks and relationships. While the map has multiple uses, on the most basic level, it is a community-building tool that allows communities to identify assets and communicate those assets to local government agencies or nonprofit organizations that might become strategic partners, including potential funders. 

[13] Relying on the results of the community surveys and research and literature about economic development in inner city communities, the students working on this project will produce both a narrative that objectively describes the case for doing business in Five Points and a shorter marketing-type document that FPBD can use to recruit businesses.