December/January Volunteer Feature: Innovative Partnership with Goodwin Procter and PricewaterhouseCoopers Expands Pro Bono Menu for Nonprofits and Start-Up Businesses
The private bar plays an instrumental role in the Legal Aid Society's Community Development Project ("CDP"), which provides business legal services for low-income clients, with attorneys from New York's leading law firms providing pro bono assistance on 75 % of the matters. Until recently, however, CDP lacked the financial and accounting expertise to advise community based nonprofits and low-income micro entrepreneurs on sound accounting practices. Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC), which recently joined the Legal Aid Society's Board of Directors, has made a commitment to fill this void and ensure clients operate with appropriate internal financial controls and transparency.
Thomas Meriam, a partner with Goodwin Procter, identified our clients' need for these financial services and was instrumental in the creation of the Legal Aid Society and PwC relationship . "Through my work on the Community Development Project's Advisory Board, it became clear that the low-income business and not-for-profit clients of the CDP would benefit from a financial accounting component in educational and client servicing functions," said Mr. Meriam. Under his, and his fellow partner Joanne Gray's auspices, a meeting was arranged between Dalit Stern, a PwC partner, and her colleague Mark Paver, a PwC director, and the CDP staff. The PwC team quickly became enthusiastic about using their forensic accounting expertise to serve the Society's clients. Ms. Stern said, "My team and I are very excited about the opportunity to apply our accounting background, financial knowledge and our passion to a truly noble cause, especially when the population of needy New Yorkers need it more then ever."
An education workshop called, "Establishing Your Business: Accounting and Legal Considerations to Help Your Business Grow," was the initial collaboration among PwC, Goodwin, and the Legal Aid Society. Staffed by the PwC and Goodwin teams, the workshop helped to address a crucial gap for low-income entrepreneurs: even if they are able to obtain free legal services, they rarely have access to the services of financial professionals who can assist them to establish best practices in the areas of accounting and financial controls.
Co-sponsored by micro-finance leader SEEDCO and the New York City Department of Small Business Services (DBSBS), the free workshop included extensive discussion of the financial planning involved in starting a small business, an explanation of basic financial terms, investment and financing issues, and an introduction to the fundamentals of business accounting and tax compliance. The session also included the legal aspects of starting a small business, including choice of business entity and liability issues. Every seat at the workshop was occupied and attendees offered high praise for the unique curriculum.
Subsequent to the workshop, a request was made for PwC to assist a small, grassroots arts organization to correct an accounting irregularity that threatened its financial health. Ms. Stern's described her work with Mr. Paver on this matter: "We recently started assisting an organization in the remediation of controls in connection with financial irregularities. The existence of many nonprofit organizations is dependent on donations from individuals, trusts, companies, or governments, all of whom want to be sure that donated money be used for its intended purpose. Therefore, it is crucial for small nonprofit organizations to have strong, functioning internal controls in place to maintain their credibility and safeguard against fraud, waste, and abuse."
This three-way partnership enables The Legal Aid Society to holistically address clients' problems and have them enact best practices either to avert future problems or resolve them at an early stage. Ms. Stern said, "We hope that, through the Legal Aid Society, we can educate individuals and community-based organizations, increase their level of financial literacy, help them identify risks, and develop appropriate controls to avoid the types of pitfalls which could have significant consequences for their ability to raise funds and carry on their mission."
Mr. Meriam agreed: "We are proud of the role we played in bringing PWC and the Legal Aid Society together and, as the relationship blossoms, hope it will be a template for future collaborations among the Society, the legal community, and the accounting profession."
From left: Michael Bavli, associate, Goodwin Procter LLP; Dalit Stern, partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers; Chief Justice Judith Kaye; Thomas Meriam, partner, Goodwin Procter LLP; and Mark Paver, Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Goodwin Procter and PricewaterhouseCoopers were honored for their work with the Legal Aid Society's Community Development Project.