Free clinic helps small Maine employers navigate coronavirus legal issues

Alyson Mayo needed some legal advice.

Having started a business creating gluten-free desserts, Mayo was ready for a new challenge. In February, she earned certification as a personal trainer with an eye toward helping older adults with mobility issues, drawing on her undergraduate degree in sports science.

A local physical therapy office welcomed Mayo as an independent contractor. However, before she could begin, the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine.

Without any clients, Mayo forged ahead. She decided to provide training online. But how to set up the business? What about liability? Tax implications?

“I needed more information,” said Mayo, who got answers quickly and without charge through a new statewide program offered by the Volunteer Lawyers Project, with funding provided by the Maine Justice Foundation.

A longtime resource for low-income Mainers in need of legal assistance, the project recently launched a virtual clinic for nonprofits and small businesses with up to 25 employees whose operations have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The program offers a free consultation of up to an hour with a Maine attorney about a potential legal issue connected to the pandemic.

Beth Richardson, who coordinates the program, has 26 attorneys with a variety of expertise in matters related to business, debt restructuring, commercial leases and startups.

“This is a group of attorneys who aren’t often asked to provide pro bono service because they’re in the business space,” Richardson said. “So this project really fits them nicely. It’s been great for the clients, and it’s been terrific for the attorneys.”

Attorney Bill Black at his Cousins Island home this month. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bill Black, of Yarmouth, is one such attorney. Now 68, he started his own law firm after moving to Maine from Chicago in 1983 and went on to start three other businesses. He was able to give Mayo advice on taxes, insurance and filings with state and federal governments.

“I have a strong belief that entrepreneurs are indispensable,” Black said. “Our economy depends on small businesses and their success. If we don’t foster that, we have a hard time here in Maine.”

Earlier in his career, Black had reached out to the Volunteer Lawyers Project, now in its fourth year as a discrete nonprofit entity after more than three decades operating under the umbrella of Pine Tree Legal Assistance. He quickly discovered that the program’s principal involvements were with family law, which is outside his area of expertise.

So far, he’s been able to advise two clients with small business concerns. Mayo had sent an email to the clinic on a Friday afternoon, received a reply from Richardson on the following Monday asking for specifics, and by Tuesday was fielding a phone call from Black.

“So within one to two business days, I had my answer,” said Mayo, whose new endeavor is called Made For You Health & Fitness. “They saved me hundreds of dollars. I mean, who has that now?”

The program is the brainchild of Juliet Holmes-Smith, the former executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, whose death in August temporarily disrupted operations. Even now, Richardson has more attorneys willing to volunteer than clients – nine as of Thursday – who have reached out for assistance.

“We’ve had some activity, but not what we thought we would,” said Richardson, who has spread news of the clinic primarily through the Small Business Development Center at the University of Southern Maine. “We could handle more, so I would really love to get the word out.”

Instructions for requesting advice are posted on the project’s website. Richardson asks for an email with contact information, number of employees and a brief description of the problem. An attorney herself, Richardson screens potential clients to pinpoint the underlying legal issue, then searches through her stable of volunteers for an appropriate match.

Tanya Sambatakos, of Saco, is another volunteer attorney who serves on the board and was instrumental in starting the program. Her specialty is bankruptcy law.

Government-mandated precautions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus have forced many small business owners to wonder about a host of possibilities: What are the consequences of being unable to pay their rent or their vendors? What precautions are necessary to protect employees and customers? What are the possible ramifications of Economic Disaster Relief and Paycheck Protection Program loans?

“When you’re kind of in the thick of it, it’s hard to sit down and figure out what’s important and what you need,” Sambatakos said. “Obviously, all the problems are not going to be solved in half an hour, but at least we can help them identify their needs, and they can breathe a little easier.”

Sambatakos recently advised a client about options regarding debt and a sharply reduced income stream. The business involves supplying a food product to restaurants and caterers. Its revenue is sufficient to pay bills, but not the owner, who asked not to be identified because they are considering bankruptcy and don’t want to be stigmatized.

“I was spending too much time worrying, thinking through different scenarios and not enough time sleeping,” the business owner said. “What if I decide this is not a good use of my life? What do I do with all those loans?”

Consultations with Sambatakos led the owner to consider an option other than bankruptcy: selling the business, perhaps at a discount. The owner is still thinking things over, and is sleeping better with more peace of mind.

Within a week of reaching out to the Volunteer Lawyer’s Project, the owner reported having “a detailed, meaningful conversation” with Sambatakos, and recommends that other small business owners do likewise.

“You don’t run a small business in Maine and give up easily, or not know how to grind,” the business owner said. “We’re used to adversity. But I felt like I was floundering. She helped me decide that, given my circumstances, bankruptcy wouldn’t be anything I would need.”

Sambatakos said it’s always nice to have a business consultant, even when times are good. Under more challenging circumstances, sound legal advice can be even more important. A solution may not be readily apparent, but an attorney may also be able to direct the client to other resources.

“They’re not going to have to wait weeks to talk with someone,” she said. “Turnaround is a couple days. There’s no commitment. There’s no charge. It’s just a conversation that can help them with their needs.”

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