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.