Since 2012, Lowenstein Sandler has partnered with Rising Tide Capital in a pro bono program designed to give law students and young lawyers hands-on experience advising under-resourced entrepreneurs, while at the same time offering high-quality legal services that contribute to the transformation of lives and communities.
More than a decade ago, Lowenstein Tech Group partner Raymond P. Thek and former chair of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest Ken Zimmerman launched the partnership to expand the firm’s pro bono program by giving transactional attorneys more ways to put their skills to work. According to Thek, “95 percent of most law firm’s pro bono programs at the time were solely focused on litigation. That meant that two-thirds of our lawyers—those with corporate and transactional practices—were having trouble finding opportunities to participate that could leverage their working expertise.”
Thek continues: “Fortunately, Lowenstein had the benefit of the creative brilliance of Ken Zimmerman.”
Rising Tide Capital provided an interesting alternative. Rising Tide Capital is a nonprofit organization that offers hands-on training in business planning and management for low-income entrepreneurs trying to start and grow successful businesses that stimulate local economies.
When Rising Tide Capital began ramping up its client offerings, its leadership realized there was an important piece of the puzzle that was missing: access to free, quality legal services.
Thek and Zimmerman joined forces with Rising Tide Capital and New York University Law School to develop a program where young lawyers and law students could work directly with entrepreneurs, providing basic legal services such as corporate formation and governance, contract drafting, negotiating commercial leases, drafting policies to protect online businesses, and trademark and IP counseling. According to both leaders and participants, the program has been a success since its inception.
“Rarely do you see an idea work so perfectly and exactly as we thought it would,” says Thek. He gives credit mostly to the “young people who implemented it,” adding: “I just like to bask in their reflected glory.” Thek adds that, in addition to giving young lawyers the valuable experience of working one-on-one with new business owners, the collaboration is also an effective branding and recruiting tool for Lowenstein, as it illustrates the firm’s reputation as a place where “creative and visionary people get things done and our communities benefit as a result.”
The program runs twice each year. During Spring 2023, volunteer students and law students served 15 entrepreneurs under a steering committee led by Corporate Pro Bono Counsel Christina Holder along with Thek and Corporate associates Latoya Bethune, Claire Dronzek, and Michael Sharpe. Holder credits Bethune, Dronzek, and Sharpe for much of the program’s success. “Steering Committee participation affords junior associates the opportunity to strengthen their leadership and project management skills while raising their profile within the firm. These talented attorneys seized the opportunity to lead and helped the program run smoothly and reach a great number of local entrepreneurs,” she says.
Dronzek recalls that, as one of the program’s leaders, her duties included selecting participants from dozens of applications received, conducting initial intake meetings to assess legal needs, and periodically checking in on the various participants, students, and lawyers to make sure deadlines were being met. She says she finds the program rewarding because she gets to work with many people at Lowenstein with whom she might not otherwise closely interact; she also appreciates the opportunity to connect with talented law students and promising entrepreneurs.
In addition to her supervisory role, Dronzek directly assisted a local entrepreneur, who operates a company focused on mental health and wellness programs for youth; she drafted contractor agreements and advised on business development and use of its intellectual property (in collaboration with trademark associate Jenna Marie Tracy.)
The program has also been a reliable hit with law students, with dozens signing up to participate each year. Dronzek notes that the steering committee is exploring ways to further improve the program, such as by reintroducing live events (paused since the pandemic) in order to enhance relationship-building among lawyers, entrepreneurs, and students.
Cole Kaufman, an NYU student involved with the program, says: “Many if not most 1Ls come into law school feeling like they know little about what they're doing . . . myself included. Lowenstein's program offers them a chance to develop confidence and grow.” He adds: “This program gives 1Ls a unique opportunity to get hands-on transactional work early on. . . . To be able to get a taste of the role of a transactional lawyer as a law student was incredible, especially in such a meaningful way—helping social entrepreneurs on a pro bono basis. It definitely validated my interest in using my legal skills to help businesses achieve their goals, and gave me some confidence moving into summer recruitment.”
To date, Lowenstein lawyers have helped approximately 100 Rising Tide participants launch businesses in sectors such as health, consumer goods, and cannabis, to name only a few.
One recent Rising Tide participant needed time-sensitive assistance reviewing and negotiating her first-ever commercial lease for her Newark-based business, A Life Recycled, which offers personal and professional development services for women. Lowenstein volunteers helped her understand the proposed lease, successfully negotiate more favorable lease terms, and register her business’s service mark.
Another Rising Tide Capital client, Angel Hugs 4 All, sells handcrafted dolls through Etsy and teaches doll-making classes. As the business grew, the owner wanted to expand her online business to a brick-and-mortar one: Lowenstein lawyers helped convert the company from a sole proprietorship to an LLC, drafted a template purchase order she could provide to customers, and prepared a service agreement for students in her classes.
Stacey C. Tyler, counsel in the firm’s Real Estate practice and co-chair of the Cannabis working group, integrated her Rising Tide Capital volunteer experience into both of her wheel houses. Together with associate Stephen Tanico, Stacey helped Rising Tide Capital clients Matha Figaro and James Barrett scale up CannPowerment, their recreational cannabis manufacturing and distribution business, by negotiating the lease for an industrial property where the business can produce and distribute its products. Factors complicating the transaction included a particularly intransigent landlord’s counsel and a looming licensing deadline by which they had to have secured their operating location.
Matha and James are enthusiastic about their work with the Lowenstein team. “It has been awesome!” Matha says. “They helped us get access to savings on capital, plus they really cared about us. They made sure that we did not get trapped in an impossible contract, and they even helped us navigate certain environmental challenges with our new premises. We were not just another pro bono project for them.”
“Words cannot fully express the magnitude of what Stephen and Stacey did for us,” says James. “90 percent of applications in this state are rejected because the complex [cannabis] regulations make it next to impossible to cross the finish line. There are literally hundreds of businesses that will not be able to put together the pieces of this puzzle, but these lawyers did.” Matha and James’s company has been nominated for NJ.com’s Cannabis Insider Awards 2023 in the category of product excellence in innovation, and their manufacturing facility is on schedule to open its doors soon.
The many Lowenstein attorneys who have participated in the Rising Tide Capital program not only advance the public interest but also develop their own professional and personal capital. By collaborating with up-and-coming local entrepreneurs, law students, and fellow lawyers across the firm, volunteers benefit from new perspectives, broader networks, and sharpened client counseling skills. It is no wonder that the long-standing pro bono program remains one of the firm’s most popular, year after year.