Penn State Law Clinic expands scope of services amid pandemic

May 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.– For small businesses, it can be challenging to navigate the law. Recently, there is an additional layer of complexity as the COVID-19 pandemic closed down many non-essential organizations across the state.

With no precedent for action, small business owners have been forced to navigate how they can make sales, pay their rent and handle other associated costs during an uncertain time.

Fortunately for these small business owners, the Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic (EAC) has expanded its services so small businesses, entrepreneurs, startups and nonprofit organizations can receive assistance from enthusiastic law students at no cost.

Under the supervision of Tom Sharbaugh, professor of practice at Penn State Law, and Tyler Etter, the clinic's second supervising attorney, law students in the EAC represent small businesses located anywhere across the commonwealth to help fulfill Penn State's land-grant mission in the 21st century by providing service in addition to teaching and research.

Traditionally, students help clients with a range of issues related to starting and expanding small businesses and work closely with the 16 Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in Pennsylvania. Due to COVID-19, students are also working with the SBDCs to assist clients with navigating the various COVID-19 loan and grant programs that are available through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and elsewhere. The students also work with clients to manage their liabilities under existing loans, leases and other contractual commitments. 

"We now have a pivoted focus regarding COVID-19 and we're asking: 'what can we do to help?'" Sharbaugh said. "For the month of April, the EAC had over 70 new client requests. This number is double what we had in March, which was about 37."

The students are still able to perform their work as usual as the EAC has always operated via Zoom, a video conferencing platform, to meet with clients around Pennsylvania. He noted "the 'lights' will stay on because the work doesn't stop­ but also because the students get invested in their clients' success."

The faces of the EAC

This summer, Sharbaugh will have 13 students working for the clinic, a jump in numbers over prior years.

Two students who have been working in the EAC are rising third-year law students Agneta Hendershot and Britani Petersen. Hendershot and Petersen have been working as a team since the beginning of the spring semester and have tackled various complicated cases like real estate, equipment leasing and formation of nonprofit corporations. The duo explained they feel that it's their duty to help small businesses during the current crisis.

"There's no precedent for this current situation of COVID-19," Peterson said. "We don't have the answers right now, but we are working hard to find them."

Traditionally, the students of the EAC have to complete 12 hours working with clients a week. In one week alone, Hendershot and Petersen devoted 30 hours to one client needing assistance with rent negotiations. The partners were proud to go above and beyond their duties to help a client when it was needed most.

Hendershot noted that small businesses are experiencing undue stress from COVID-19, but the EAC is in a position to help.

"We have the privilege to connect, network and learn," Hendershot said. "We need to do the groundwork and give people vetted information to clear up misconceptions. People may feel helpless, but we are in a great position to help make frameworks during this time and get information to those that need it most. It's a free service, and people are usually in disbelief when they learn that, especially now when people can't afford additional costs."

Petersen explained that the EAC actively seeks those that need assistance, such as their client Girls Code the World.

Two young women stand in front of a wall saying "Welcome to Girls Code the World."

Girls Code the World was founded in 2017 when Sydney Gibbard (left) and Mina Shokoufandeh (right) were students at the Pennington School in Pennington, NJ.  

IMAGE: Girls Code the World

Girls Code the World, founded by close friends and first-year college students from Pennsylvania, Sydney Gibbard and Mina Shokoufandeh, seeks to provide opportunities for young, under-resourced girls by providing week-long programs that focus on holistic STEM education.

Gibbard requested assistance from the EAC after being accepted to Happy Valley Launchbox's 2020 Summer Founders Program. The program provided the team with a $15,000 grant and other essential resources to help develop Girls Code the World, so long as they formalized their program in an entity.

Gibbard, a Penn State biomedical engineering and pre-med student, and Shokoufandeh, a Tufts University biology and biomedical sciences student, connected with the clinic to gain legal advice on organizing an official nonprofit entity.

"The help the EAC has provided us has been invaluable so far," Gibbard said. "It is incredibly difficult for startups and young people to develop businesses, especially because consulting and legal services can be so expensive or inaccessible."

Similarly, Big Maple Family Farm, a fifth-generation farm, reached out to the EAC when they needed help with organizing their family business as a limited liability company (LLC). 

Samuel Blakely, who graduated in May 2020, spent fall 2019 and spring 2020 assisting the family. Via Zoom, Blakely helped Amanda Balon of Big Maple Family Farm complete the necessary paperwork.

The family of Big Maple Family Farm stands together for a photo.

Amanda Balon, featured far right, is the fifth generation of the Big Maple Family Farm located in Ridgway, Pa.

IMAGE: Big Maple Family Farm

Because of Blakely's assistance and their new status as an LLC, the family is now expanding their offerings to provide customers with a farm-to-door delivery service. Balon explained that they added this service because COVID-19 makes it harder to get fresh groceries.

"When you work with small businesses, they are chasing their dreams,” Blakely said. "COVID-19 is a huge disruption for small businesses.”

Balon noted that working with Blakely was easy and that the clinic is a great help for small businesses like the Big Maple Family Farm.

"We wouldn't be where we are now, as an LLC, without the clinic and our local SBDC," Balon said. "You can start a small business and it can be affordable– it won't break your bank if you can find the right resources to help you."

Blakely will be working for the EAC at the beginning of the summer semester before starting his bar review course.

Later this year, Blakely will move to upstate New York to continue his work in this field with a private firm. Blakely explained that issues from COVID-19 will be felt long after the wave passes.

“This is exactly the kind of work that I want to keep on doing,” Blakely said. “Helping people."

For the future

Sharbaugh said the EAC has seen a surge in activity in recent months, not only with COVID-related services but also with newly formed businesses. Sharbaugh has been holding webinars several times a week to teach these new business owners about liabilities and other important topics.

"While it may seem counter-intuitive, people form businesses in recessions, so-called 'entrepreneurs of necessity,' when they have lost or lose faith in their pre-recession jobs," Sharbaugh said.

Located in State College at Happy Valley LaunchBox Powered by PNC Bank, the clinic will be expanding to 18 students for fall 2020 to meet their growing needs.

"I'm from a small town and most of our clients aren't from the Pittsburgh or Philadelphia areas," Sharbaugh said. "We work closely with clients from rural areas and the students have been working double-time to help them. People are just trying to pay their rent, and the EAC is here to help."

“We Are” stories

The "We Are" spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State's commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a "We Are" moment — and we want to hear your "We Are" stories.

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by COVID-19. We are!

Last Updated June 02, 2020