Journal of Leadership and the Law

Capstone Project: Mobile Law Clinics

By Jessica Richardson

Outside of the bustling metropolitan areas, the idea of "Main Street" has been resurrected. In my hometown, there has been a push to revitalize our "Main Street," which was once the center of the community's local economy. As our economy changes and modifies to needs of the twenty-first century, there has been both a political and sentimental push to dust off the relics of the community-based economy, i.e. "Main Street." Regardless of political or sentimental views, the idea of planting seeds for entrepreneurship holds water. I grew up in a small eastern North Carolina town where everyone who worked in the colloquially coined "good jobs" worked in three major areas: textiles, manufacturing, and small service businesses. In recent years, as the economy has shifted and many manufacturing jobs have gone away, business leaders are focusing increasingly on innovative ways to save their communities.

Looking around my hometown, I grew tired of seeing the high unemployment rates, and a city starved for hope. Entrepreneurship in the arts, services, and even technical industries can boost morale in a community, and I decided to investigate how I, through my position as a law student, could make an impact in these areas. Like me, many law students are looking for ways to improve the communities around them, and there are countless ways for them to add to legal infrastructure of rural areas.  Initially, law students could set up mobile clinics to help entrepreneurs with legal issues and provide resources for local economic development offices. The expansion of entrepreneurship increases the economic outlook of a community. Entrepreneurship not only gives a community jobs, it also gives the community a purpose.

The need to build an entrepreneurship infrastructure is not only in my hometown but across many of North Carolina’s eighty-eight rural counties. In fact, the North Carolina Rural Center completed a study on the economic progression across all of North Carolina’s one hundred counties and found that all of the twenty most distressed areas were rural counties. This should come as no surprise, since many rural economies have traditionally relied on textiles and manufacturing.  Additionally, most rural areas do not emphasize higher education or technological innovation. Most rural counties are very poor. Poverty in rural areas takes on a whole new toll in the twenty-first century, where most of these rural areas look as though time stood still. These areas look almost forgotten by time as residents lack access to basic necessities like adequate plumbing, running water, and internet service. 

Small businesses bring in billions of dollars in revenue in North Carolina and give the community a sense of local pride and dignity. The Mobile Law Clinic (MLC) project is still in its infancy, but we have a committed team with the Elon Law Pro Bono Board.  For my leadership fellows capstone project, my team and I sought to lay the groundwork for the MLC. We created training guides and built networks of potential community partners. The purpose of the MLC project is to go to rural areas in NC - and eventually even beyond - and provide the small business owners and entrepreneurs with legal help.  Because we know that the MLC is a temporary space in the community, the team also wants to leave a more permanent footprint by working with community leaders to create a strong legal infrastructure to support economic development in such areas. The team has goals of turning the MLC into more than a weekend trip on spring and fall breaks.  With the implementation of Elon Law’s new residency programs, there is real possibility that the MLC could flourish into a legal extern residency where law students have eight weeks to leave their mark in North Carolina’s rural communities.

It is important to remember that as students and legal professionals, we seek to serve the rural communities as our clients, and must be careful not to go in managing the small business owners and acting as if we know what is best for them.  Instead, we should listen to the clients and learn from them. In particular, we hope to learn the clients’ needs, wants, and hopes so that we can build a legal infrastructure that works best for them.  We will only be visitors to the area, and these small businesses owners live in the communities and raise their families there. This is why it was critical to partner with an organization that knows the communities and has a great working relationship with the community members.  It was exciting to brainstorm with the economic leaders of these communities to see where our legal knowledge could be of assistance. North Carolina is contemplating new investor laws that would open up investment offerings to the average business owner.  Also, some rural cities are looking at having their own municipal broadband, which may lower technology costs for their citizens and has caused FCC attention in the past. There are countless legal issues. Law students can help lay the foundation for legal infrastructure in rural areas. Taking legal resources on the road can take many forms, from creating a mobile law clinic to setting up legal workshops in local economic development centers.