While law firms generally offer pro bono services, Shulman Rogers decided it wanted to do something more impactful for 2023. It has launched a program to provide free legal support for the entire year to a Black-owned business in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region.
“We recognize the need that Black-owned businesses have for legal services. We understand that there are special challenges that face Black businesses, and we would like to do our part to alleviate some of the barriers to entry for smaller, Black-owned businesses,” said Kimberly Mann, co-chair of the program and chair of the Potomac, Maryland, firm’s Fund Formation Practice.
Shulman Rogers will accept applications for the year of legal services until Dec. 1. Any 51% Black-owned business in D.C., Maryland or Northern Virginia can apply through a process on the firm’s website.
Mann shared six additional criteria that the firm’s selection committee will be looking for from businesses that apply:
- Validly exist in the jurisdiction
- Have a solid business plan
- Be in an industry with high-growth potential
- Exhibit strong entrepreneurial commitment
- Display management team experience
- Demonstrate need
“We anticipate that most of the applicants will be younger businesses because more established businesses probably already have legal counsel,” she said. “But we are open to businesses at all stages of the lifecycle.”
Helping Black-owned businesses grow across the region
The ultimate goal of the program is to help the selected business create a foundation for growth, Mann said. With that in mind, Shulman Rogers expects that most of the legal services it provides will be tailored to establishing a strong foundation for the business and helping it expand or plan for future growth.
“That would include things like entity formation,” she said. “If the company has already formed, corporate governance services or reorganization, and then beyond that, long-term tax planning, bank financing or venture financing in the seed or pre-seed stages, contract drafting and negotiation, trademark matters, getting their intellectual property rights in order, real estate and employment matters.”
These types of legal services are critical early on, Mann said, adding that it often costs more to reset a business and fix something than it does to start off in the right way.
“If you have goals of being acquired by a strategic buyer or a financial buyer, or if you have lofty goals of having an initial public offering, all of that is predicated on good corporate governance and a solid infrastructure and foundation,” she said.
Like most small businesses, Black-owned businesses often bypass legal services early on, thinking that they’re too expensive or not a priority, Mann said. But given that Black-owned small businesses, based on U.S. Census data, fail at a much higher rate in the first year to 18 months than small businesses generally, this program aims to help change that one Black-owned business at a time.
Shulman Rogers sees the initiative as way to give back to the community that has been the firm’s home for 50 years.
“This is our home, and this is something for our family in the region,” Mann said. “Whether it’s Maryland, D.C, or Virginia, it’s all our home, and it’s helping to build a great business community in the place where we live and work.”