Reed Smith works pro bono to aid urban startup coalition

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An effort to connect entrepreneurs from the area’s most distressed communities with some of the most experienced and prominent attorneys in the region started with a simple video presentation.

William Generett, president and CEO of Urban Innovation21, drafted the video to show attendees of the Nov. 6 Allegheny Conference’s annual meeting how Urban Innovation21’s growth has aided its member companies.

Once the video stopped, Reed Smith partner Matthew Mohn approached Mr. Generett with an idea to address one area of support where the economic development coalition seemed to be lacking. Mr. Mohn, who has been with the firm since 2007 and is a partner in the Corporate and Securities Group, realized that the growing businesses were most likely pushing forward without the aid of much-needed legal advice.

Noting that his firm is a signatory to the Pro Bono Institute’s Pro Bono Challenge, which requires more than 3 percent of billable time to go toward pro bono work, Mr. Mohn thought a collaboration with Urban Innovation21 was the ideal way to help the community and reach the firm’s goals.

After an introductory meeting a few weeks ago that drew around 40 Reed Smith attorneys, an official program that made urban entrepreneurs the latest clients of the high-powered law firm was born. Already 17 companies have received pro bono services worth $60,000 to $70,000.

“Our attorneys’ energy and excitement with this collaboration is extraordinary,” said Mr. Mohn in a statement. “We hope that this partnership with Urban Innovation21 will be an important vehicle for the evolving innovation economy in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods.”

Although the program is in its early stages, it already is evolving, Mr. Generett said. While the idea initially was to focus on entrepreneurs in the Hill District and Homewood, the criteria have expanded. Today, entrepreneurs who are residents of underserved communities, who cannot afford legal services and whose businesses will benefit an underserved community are eligible.

Mr. Generett said the service will help first-time business owners address issues such as contract negotiations, corporation formation, trademarks, patents and other conflicts that are often better resolved with legal representation.

Theresa and Garl Germany, owners of the Hill District-based candy company S&T Chocolates, said advice from Reed Smith has already helped them avoid potential legal pitfalls.

“[Reed Smith has] been so helpful in helping us make sure our labels and logos are protected and helping us understand how to protect ourselves from food-related risks,” said Mrs. Germany.

Mr. Generett said Reed Smith attorneys also benefit from the experience by seeing how much their work means to clients with little to spend and even less to lose.

“A lot of the clients they work with at Reed Smith are so big they don’t get to see the impact of what they do,” he said.

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.

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