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Transactional attorneys who want to do pro bono work, but would prefer to stay out of courtrooms, are providing legal assistance to community development corporations that are trying to revitalize low-income neighborhoods. The help comes through Texas Community Building with Attorney Resources, known as Texas C-BAR. The statewide initiative was launched last year in Austin as a special project of Legal Aid of Central Texas in collaboration with nine other legal services programs in the state. Through the program, lawyers are linked to community-based, nonprofit organizations that provide affordable housing for low-income Texans, renovate deteriorated buildings in blighted areas, provide on-site child care services and more, says Heather Way, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Central Texas and the coordinator of Texas C-BAR. “All of these groups are struggling,” Way says, noting that most community development corporations (CDCs) don’t have access to affordable legal assistance. If a group has to choose between spending money to hire a lawyer or making its housing programs more affordable, it may forgo legal assistance until a problem arises, she says. That’s where Texas C-BAR comes in. The program has referred 23 cases to lawyers since the effort began in October 2000, Way says. Way got the ball rolling when she wrote a grant proposal to the Texas Bar Foundation for a statewide program after her research found similar pro bono programs around the country. The Bar Foundation awarded $45,767 to fund the first year of the program. The funding, which provided the base support for the program, began in June 2000. Efforts are under way to raise funds to keep the program going, Way says. Way says assistance has been provided to CDCs all over the state. To be eligible for assistance under Texas C-BAR guidelines, a program must qualify for tax-exempt status or be a startup group that needs help obtaining an exemption. The program also must be located in a low-income area, governed by a community-based board, engaged in housing development that benefits low-income people and unable to obtain quality, affordable legal assistance. Way says new organizations may need help creating articles of incorporation, drafting bylaws or applying for tax-exempt status. Transactional lawyers also can help a group establish clear title to a piece of property, negotiate a loan agreement or draft a construction contract, she says. Doug Dowler, executive director of Pineywoods Home Team Affordable Housing Inc. in Lufkin, Texas, says lawyers with Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison have been assisting his organization in gaining tax-exempt status for a new financial institution that will make financing affordable for low- and moderate-income families in the market to buy a home. The lawyers also have helped draft bylaws, he says. “The situation requires a level of expertise that we certainly don’t have,” Dowler says. “We certainly couldn’t have done this on our own.” The program also benefits the lawyers who volunteer their time and talent. “It’s a very welcome opportunity for transactional lawyers who, as a general rule, don’t have many opportunities to do pro bono work in their fields of practice,” says Aric Short, an associate at Vinson & Elkins in Austin and the Texas C-BAR volunteer coordinator for the firm. Short says V&E was the first firm to make a commitment to the program and has taken nine cases since October. The effort began in the firm’s Austin office but has spread to its offices in Dallas and Houston, he says. Heather Ross, an associate with the employment litigation section of V&E’s Austin office, says she’s been working on an employee manual for the Acres Home CDC, which constructs new homes for low-income individuals. She says creating employee handbooks is something her section does as a matter of course for the firm’s clients. Gail Weatherby, of counsel at V&E in Austin, says she worked on Texas C-BAR’s first referral, a project that involved assisting Heights CDC in Houston in preparing a real estate contract. The deal didn’t work out, but Weatherby says she enjoyed the chance to do pro bono service in her field. Michael Li, an associate with and the pro bono coordinator at Baker Botts in Dallas, says his firm has handled three cases referred by Texas C-BAR. Li says much of the work that the lawyers in his firm have done for clients referred by the program involved straightforward matters that may have been confusing to people who don’t know much about the law. But for transactional lawyers, the projects are “pretty much cookie-cutter deals,” he says. According to Way, other firms that have taken Texas C-BAR referrals include Locke Liddell & Sapp and the Dallas office of Haynes and Boone. Individual lawyers also have accepted referrals. Ross says the program has made it “really painless” for lawyers to get involved in pro bono projects. “They [Texas C-BAR] take care of all the paperwork,” she says. Once the program has screened a CDC and determined it is eligible for assistance, the organization is just like any other client for V&E, Ross says. After making a referral, Way says, the program provides ongoing resources for the lawyers and clients. Lawyers also can access the program’s resource center at http://www.texascbar.org/ for sample forms and model documents for CDC transactional matters.

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