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Small business legal research task force aims to be resource for businesses

Monday, August 10, 2020

Project provides an opportunity for law students to gain work experience serving small businesses

By Leslie Ridgeway

A new task force aimed at assisting local small businesses as they grapple with changing health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19 is giving USC Gould students valuable summer experience some have missed due to cancelled or delayed internships and externships.

The Small Business Legal Research Task Force was started in early May by Clinical Professor Michael Chasalow, director of the USC Gould Small Business Clinic. When he put the word out that he was looking for student volunteers, he quickly amassed a group of about 25 students who leaped at the chance to collaborate on the project, which involved creating and launching a website (sbrr.usc.edu) with relevant information, including forms, on everything from whether a business can take customers’ temperature to how to ask a creditor for forbearance on bill payments.

“It’s somewhat challenging because you have to thread this needle of trying to be useful but also providing accurate guidance,” says Michael Chasalow of developing the Small Business Legal Research Task Force.

“For many of these issues, there are no applicable legal precedents; we are taking known legal principles and applying them to new rules and regulations,” said Chasalow. “It’s somewhat challenging because you have to thread this needle of trying to be useful but also providing accurate guidance. And it’s a constantly moving target. As soon as we answer a question, new guidance is issued, and we have to update it.”

True to that challenge, the same day the task force website was launched, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new orders closing most businesses in Southern California. For rising 3L Emma Cunningham, who took on co-designing and maintaining the project workflow, it meant going back to the drawing board with much of the material posted on the Q&A page on the site, but only reinforced her commitment to being part of a solution.

“My sister is a medical physician in Riverside, where she admits and treats patients with COVID, and she was the primary motivation behind it,” she said of her choice to join the task force. “She is doing what she can as a doctor, and I wanted to use the experience that Gould has trained me in to contribute.”

In addition to the Q&A page, the site features sample templates for businesses, including a form for patrons agreeing to abide by a business’ terms for mask wearing and social distancing. More templates covering other business-COVID related issues are under development. 

The site also includes a form for business owners to submit questions that are routed to student volunteers, who research and develop answers that are reviewed by the workflow managers and Chasalow. There’s also a resource page with links to a small business guide from the local nonprofit Bet Tzedek, as well as IRS resources, stimulus information and CDC guidance.

“Our goal is to provide an opportunity for our students to benefit the community,” Chasalow said. “The current situation left many of our students with additional time this summer, but that additional time provides the brain power that enables the task force to function. We have been able to provide meaningful work experiences while producing a high-quality product that is a resource for local businesses. The students on the task force can be proud of the work they are doing and will be able to point to specific contributions they made to the website and to help businesses during this crisis.” 

Rising 2L Ariel Jacoby started working on the task force at the end of the spring semester, putting her background in web development and marketing to use. Several of her friends own small businesses, and she saw first-hand the confusion they were dealing with and wanted to do what she could do to help while gaining experience that could advance her in her law career.

Students Elizabeth Bell, Emma Cunningham and Ariel Jacoby helped develop the task force and hope it helps clear up some of the confusion small businesses have been experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve been really impressed with the quality [of the project] – how Professor Chasalow has set up an excellent management team that is good at communicating and very responsive, and everyone on the team takes full ownership of the work and pride in answers they’re putting forward,” she said. It’s made me optimistic. Even though this is a difficult time for law students, it comforts me to see everyone contributing to this project. The site is meaningful to visitors but also to the people working on it.”

For Elizabeth Bell, who is on track to graduate in 2022, working as co-administrator with Cunningham offered an opportunity to get some practical experience while waiting for her delayed summer externship to begin. In her role, she tracks assignments and workload and said she’s enjoying the organizational aspects. Her career interest is business law, and she appreciates digging in to real-time business challenges.

“It’s been really interesting to get a taste of important business issues,” she said. “As a 1L, I haven’t taken any business law courses, so It’s been interesting to see what businesses need to know right now, and help them navigate these tough times.”

Chasalow hopes the project continues as a student-led initiative.

“My hope is that this gains a life of its own and functions the way our law school journals function – run by students with an advisor – providing answers for problems that are pressing for businesses going forward,” he said. “We’re addressing a current need, but it would be great to have an ongoing mechanism that helps small businesses.”

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