‘To Resist Gentrification’: A Q&A With Tobias Damm-Luhr On Providing Legal Services to Small Businesses

Legal Services for Entrepreneurs' Tobias Damm-Luhr speaks with Indulgence Tea Bar co-owner Raj Batth.

Legal Services for Entrepreneurs, a program of the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, held its first free legal clinic for small business owners in Ingleside in December and plans to hold another this month. Alex Mullaney, who helped organize the clinic for the Ocean Avenue Association, interviewed LSE’s Tobias Damm-Luhr about their services to learn more. What follows is a lightly edited Q. and A.

Why does LCCR offer the entrepreneur assistance program?  

LCCR’s Legal Services for Entrepreneurs program exists to build the economic power of low-income communities of color in the San Francisco Bay Area through small business ownership. Especially in San Francisco, a significant part of this work is focused on helping businesses in these communities to resist gentrification.

LSE was founded in 1997 by attorneys who recognized that a small business’ long-term viability may be jeopardized when it forgoes legal assistance on fundamental business matters. To this end, LSE provides free transactional legal services to low-income individuals who want to start or develop businesses, businesses committed to investing in economically distressed communities, including hiring people with arrest and conviction records, and mom and pop shops located in areas where gentrification is a force for displacement.

How many small businesses does LCCR serve annually?

Between December 2018 and November 2019, LSE served a total of 416 Bay Area small businesses through our workshops and clinics. During the same period, the LSE team conducted 140 intakes with Bay Area small businesses for longer-term volunteer attorney matching. Of these clients, 94 were matched with volunteer attorneys for free one-on-one legal representation after individual business assessments and intakes.

Why hold the clinic in Ingleside? Any plans to hold another clinic in Ingleside? 

We held a clinic in Ingleside due to the high percentage of local businesses owned by people of color and immigrants and because Ingleside is in a lower-income census tract. In addition, we understand that the neighborhood is undergoing gentrification in some parts, and we want to help protect existing businesses against that as much as possible.

We are holding another LSE clinic in Ingleside on Feb. 20.

In addition, we want to enable non-English-speaking business owners to attend the clinic. The the clinic on Dec. 17 included Chinese- and Spanish-speaking volunteer attorneys and a Chinese-speaking paralegal. We will ask volunteers who speak these languages to attend the next clinic as well. We are committed to making this resource as accessible to the community as possible.  

How was the turnout?

We received 15 registrations and even had to turn a couple of people away because we thought there would not be enough available time slots to meet with volunteer attorneys. Eight people who had registered showed up to the clinic. We hope that our services were useful to the folks who attended and that we will have a better turnout at future events when more people have learned about the services offered and how helpful they are.     

What are the range of questions asked by small business owners? Notice any trends?

The most frequent questions were about different kinds of business contracts (e.g., contracts with vendors, customers, and independent contractors). The volunteer attorneys also advised on commercial leases (e.g., how do I negotiate an extension of the lease for my shop?), entity choice (e.g., should I start my business as a sole proprietor or partnership, or should I form a separate entity like an LLC or a corporation?), and intellectual property (e.g., how can I protect my business logo using trademark?).

The volunteer attorneys at our clinics can also advise on employment law (e.g., can I just get someone to provide services as an independent contractor, or do I need to hire them as an employee?).

Legal Services for Entrepreneurs Small Business Legal Clinic Details

Date: Feb. 20, 2020

Time: 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. 

Location: Ingleside Branch Library Community Room, 1298 Ocean Ave.

Note: Participants are encouraged to register online, or call 415-543-9444 x217 to register.

For more information about Legal Services for Entrepreneurs, visit their webpage here.