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Colorado Lawyers Offer Free Services to Small Businesses Hurt by the Pandemic

Since March, small businesses statewide have struggled to stay afloat in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A coalition of local lawyers has stepped up to help.

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Aimee Beauregard spends seven days a week working at her drive-up coffee shop, Jitters’ Java, in Durango. She’s owned the spot—a former drive-through photo development kiosk—since March of 2019, when the previous owner who’d kept the shop closed for years signed the deed over to her with no money down. 

Beauregard knew the original owner of Jitters’ Java and wanted to bring the shop back to life.

“It’s my goal to make it something,” she says. “I want it to be a downtown staple and a part of the community.”

When COVID-19 hit in March, Beauregard found herself struggling to keep her shop in the black while most of the town stayed home and sales dropped. Then the previous owner decided to change their contract. Rather than letting Beauregard take two years to pay for the property, as originally agreed, the previous owner wanted the full amount paid by August. And she wasn’t giving Beauregard any breaks.

At the encouragement of staff at the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center, Beauregard reached out to Colorado COVID Legal Relief (CCLR), a coalition of Colorado lawyers offering pro bono legal assistance to small businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since June, CCLR has connected small business owners with volunteer lawyers for help with legal matters caused or complicated by the pandemic. A collaboration of law offices WilmerHale and Davis Graham & Stubbs, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, the Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, CCLR now has nearly 200 lawyers on its roster.

The goal always [has] been to provide free legal help to small businesses trying to grapple with closures and the uncertainty around the [COVID-19] crisis,” says Keith Trammell, a corporate lawyer at WilmerHale who co-founded CCLR. The coalition does this by matching individual business owners to lawyers volunteering their time and expertise, as well as through webinars on various legal topics. (Past webinars on landlord/tenant issues, insurance, and general legal questions are available for free online.) As of this writing, CCLR has assisted 122 Colorado businesses with individual legal needs.

Small businesses are vital to Colorado’s economy. According to the Small Business Administration, they compose 99.5 percent of the state’s companies and employ almost half of all working Coloradans. Locally, more than 90 percent of members of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce are small businesses with less than 100 employees. “They truly are the economic engine of the state,” says Betsy Markey, executive director of OEDIT.

Just weeks into the pandemic, small businesses started feeling the pressure and facing what Trammell calls “existential questions.”

“They went from rather stable business operations to business closure and permanent business closure really quickly,” he says of those he heard from early on.

In the meantime, the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center received more than 1,900 calls and emails within the first three months of the pandemic—many from businesses seeking help to secure funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“Often, people just don’t know who to call,” says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “The faster we can get the company to the resources that can help them make the best decisions … the more likely they’re going to be OK.”

Such was the case for Beauregard. After contacting CCLR, she was matched with a lawyer who helped her extend her contract with the previous owner of Jitters’ Java. “I probably wouldn’t have my business if I didn’t have them,” she says.

Beauregard was part of a steady wave of demand for CCLR services early in the pandemic. Toward the end of the summer and in the early fall, the calls for legal assistance slowed as many businesses had attained some stability with PPP funding, outdoor seating options for restaurants, and the state’s generally low coronavirus case numbers and fewer pandemic restrictions.

But over the last few weeks, with climbing case numbers, increased local safety measures, and colder weather, that trend has shifted. CCLR is now receiving a fresh influx of legal assistance requests. 

“Our professional services industries … are doing pretty well and their employees can—and many of them are—working remotely,” Markey says, “but we’re particularly concerned about … those [businesses] that really rely on our tourism and our traffic.”

Trammell and Markey both name access to capital—cash flow, financial resources—as the core issue for small businesses in the pandemic economy. “The Paycheck Protection Program was really engineered for a much smaller window than it needed to be,” Trammell says. Legal services can bridge some gaps, but sometimes, the only way to save a small business is to write a check. That’s where Governor Jared Polis’ proposed stimulus could come in or, Trammell says, an unlikely expansion of federal aid.

CCLR can’t solve the capital problem, but its services can buy time for small businesses.

“The challenge that we have is making sure that we can get in front of these waves as they hit the businesses, so as the businesses hit these problems—these existential, live-or-die problems, we can get to them before their businesses close,” Trammell says. “It’s vital to our state’s economy that the small businesses that service the travel and tourism industry are helped, otherwise we’re all going to suffer, and we’re going to suffer badly.”

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