WNEU’s Mini Law School Program Helps Small Businesses Avoid PitfallsIt’s called ‘Mini Law School.’
And while that name doesn’t exactly say it all, it says more than enough.
It aptly describes a program created by Western New England University Law School to provide area business owners with a working understanding of many aspects of the law.
And by ‘working,’ Eric Gouvin, professor of Law and director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at WNEU, meant basic knowledge of the legal system and many aspects of the law — enough to help business owners hopefully stay out of trouble, especially with the many complex aspects of employment law, and also to help them decide when it is appropriate to invest in legal assistance.
“Sometimes, people in business are very cost-conscious; they’re a little reluctant to call an attorney,” said Gouvin. “So one of the things we hope this series does is give people a sense of when making that call is probably money well-spent, because it can add up.”
Patterned after a decade-old initiative created by Baystate Health called Mini Medical School, which provides the general public with a very basic understanding of the human body, the WNEU program consists of seven two-hour sessions (presented free of charge) spread over two semesters. Those sessions feature panels of area legal experts who not only present information, but also engage participants in discussion on the points addressed.
Gouvin told BusinessWest that the program brings a legal focus to a series of informational sessions being offered by the school called “The 1, 2, 3s of Financial Literacy,” with classes focused on subjects ranging from accounting to marketing to banking relationships.
Trinda Nehmer, a freelance designer of children’s apparel, textiles, and fabric designs for more than 30 years, was one of the recent attendees of Mini Law School. She took in the October session, primarily because of its title — “Current Tax Issues Facing Small Businesses and How to Handle an Audit” — and some issues she was facing.
She’d heard about the series from a friend, and having received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service a few years ago that had her questioning her next moves tax-wise, she knew she needed to be more “up” on areas that could become problems for her business.
“It turned out not to be an issue, but at the time I wasn’t sure if I should get legal advice or at least listen to how other small businesses would handle such a matter,” said Nehmer of her motivation for attending the session. “Because I get a 1099 at the end of the year, not a W-2, I feel I have to keep myself educated in all areas.
“I really enjoyed listening to Paul Mancinone [of Paul L. Mancinone Co., P.C.] because he was to the point and extremely helpful,” she continued. “He explained very simply all the new tax laws, and he was very thorough. Over the years, I found I had to go back and get up to speed on some of these tax issues because I’d been getting a little lax in the tax area; this was a great way to educate myself.”
From hiring to firing and everything in between, there’s an important legal dimension to all aspects of running any size business. For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a closer look at WNEU’s free Mini Law School program and how it can make a vast difference in the busy day-to-day life of a small business owner.
Cutting Through the Clutter
The stated mission of Mini Law School is to give small-business participants enough understanding of the law that they don’t make some common mistakes that can land business owners in court and cost them hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines.
Having offered the ‘small-business clinic,’ as it’s known in-house, for 10 years, and serving more than 250 business owners, Gouvin and his team understood the needs and concerns of the business community, and clearly saw both a need for a program specifically focused on legal issues and an opportunity to meet it.
The next matter at hand was determining a curriculum, he continued, adding that current events and prevailing issues within the broad spectrum of business law would essentially set the tone.
“There are a million things that we could be talking about in law,” said Gouvin. “But we’ve been working with small businesses long enough to see recurring patterns and things that crop up over and over again, and we identified our focus areas for these sessions based on that need.
“They almost always have problems with choices of entity, intellectual property, problems with employees,” he continued, “and the sad fact of life is that some of these businesses will fail.”
Thus, the April session of Mini Law School was devoted to bankruptcy issues, a depressing but necessary topic for discussion.
“Good planning would require that you at least think about it,” Gouvin said of bankruptcy relief, “because things that you do early on might affect how painful the process is or how productive it is.”
He added that, while he and his team know what areas are most relevant to small businesses, matters such as securities law, anti-trust law, mergers and acquisitions, and issues that pertain more to much larger companies might be touched upon during some of the sessions, but will not be a hard focus of the Mini Law School.
One thing that all businesses must be concerned with, regardless of size, is employment law, and as a result, the November session was devoted to many aspects of that broad speciality, and was, as expected, very well-attended.
The program focused on many timely issues, especially the often-complicated matter of classifying workers as employees or independent contractors, a question that has caused headaches for many employers.
“A lot of people think they know, but in Massachusetts it’s very hard to be an independent contractor,” said Gouvin. “That’s a sad fact, or an awakening moment for many owners when they think they can just give someone a 1099 and hope that nobody challenges them, because if they are challenged, under Massachusetts state law, they’ll owe back all that withholding they haven’t done, and all the interest and penalties — and it typically unfolds in a very unpleasant scenario.”
Gouvin added another, intriguing layer to the discussion by offering the example of a perceived independent contractor being in an accident and seriously injuring another person. That injured party will probably find out the connection to the business owner and then seek damages from the employer, he explained, adding that, at that point, it doesn’t matter what the business owner wants to call the worker; in the eyes of the law, if the worker really is an employee, not an independent contractor, serious problems will ensue.
Not Lost in Translation
Gouvin said the overriding goal of the program is not to throw information at participants, but to have them understand it and use to run their businesses more efficiently and in a manner that will keep them out of the courts.
“To go it alone, without having someone looking over a business owner’s shoulder, can be a very scary situation,” he said, adding that legal matters are often complex. And Mini Law School Law school was created to give business owners power through knowledge.
And that’s why the experts providing information and initiating discussions are instructed to do so using simple, straightforward language that participants can comprehend, which is one of the keys to avoiding legal problems.
Gouvin added that some of the participants are law-school students, who can benefit from hearing experienced legal professionals giving this type of talk.
“It’s different from the way they are used to hearing a law professor talk,” he noted. “But it’s a skill that any good lawyer should develop: the ability to translate legalese into English in a way that they can really communicate and connect with their future clients.”
Response to the simplicity and direct nature of the Mini Law School has been one of gratitude and a literal wipe across the forehead for some.
“People are always expressing thanks that they got so much information delivered in a way that is no fooling around,” said Gouvin. “The information is not legalese, but in a list form — ‘you need to know this, this, and this’ — and if you’re someone just trying to focus on running a business, the legal things are just a pain in the neck.”
With 32 participants for the November session on employment law, up from the 20 attendees at the October tax-issues session and the handful in attendance for the September class on risk management and legal entities, Gouvin told BusinessWest that the series does appear to be growing.
“The trend is that we are building an audience, and while we’d be very happy with 25 to 30, we can handle up to 60.”
Organizers also found that the timing in the spring, on Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m., was not conducive to busy business owners, so the time has been adjusted this year to the same day but later by an hour, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Gouvin said the plan moving forward is likely to involve rotating Mini Law School with the financial-literacy program on an annual basis. Such a schedule would give participants needed updates on legal matters, which they could then follow-up with a curriculum he described as “self-education.”
But he’s already seen enough to convince him that this program is needed, worthwhile, and certainly capable of meeting its primary mission — to help business owners avoid trouble, rather than rely on legal help after they get into trouble.
Elizabeth Taras may be reached at [email protected]