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When Levi Strauss & Co. announced in mid-April that it will shutter six factories and lay off 3,600 employees nationwide, including some 1,900 workers in El Paso, Brownsville and San Benito, Texas Rural Legal Aid lawyer Yvonne Castillo knew her project’s objectives had suddenly come into even sharper focus. Castillo is a lawyer and the director for the Legal Assistance for Micro-Enterprise Project, set up by TRLA, a nonprofit agency based in the Rio Grande Valley that provides legal services for the poor. The Micro-Enterprise Project, funded by a $100,000 pilot grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation, has the goal of providing transactional legal services to displaced former Levi’s workers and other garment industry workers who want to start up small (often garment-producing) businesses. With the new round of scheduled Levi layoffs, Castillo believes it will be easier to identify and target jobless workers who possess the skills and the desire to start their own businesses. It has been difficult to find those workers in the past. But, at the same time, Castillo fears that a new round of layoffs may multiply the demands for her project’s services beyond its current capacity to provide them, particularly since she intends to leave for another post soon. “There are limits on how much one lawyer can do,” Castillo says. It was nearly 18 months ago that TRLA, which was established in 1970 as a primary provider of free legal services to the poor residing near the Texas-Mexico border and South Central and West Texas, got funding from the San Francisco-based Levi Strauss Foundation to launch the Micro-Enterprise Project. At its outset, Castillo concedes, the Micro-Enterprise Project was a well-intentioned concept but one that needed fine-tuning. The Levi Strauss Foundation had helped fund a previous TRLA project, providing computer and telephone access to extend the availability of legal services to remote, rural areas. In the fall of 2000, Hall says, the Levi Strauss Foundation administrators agreed to fund TRLA’s proposal to create a one-attorney micro-enterprise agency. Under their grant-seeking proposal to the foundation, TRLA administrators pledged that the Micro-Enterprise Project attorney would hold seminars, prepare community legal education materials and provide traditional one-on-one transactional legal assistance to the many fledgling entrepreneurs in the Valley region. “Low-income entrepreneurs who often cannot afford legal counsel at the startup phase of a business often enter into leases and other contracts without consulting an attorney. Months later, they may face problems with these contracts that ultimately cause the business to fail,” TRLA administrators wrote to the Levi Strauss Foundation in their grant proposal. As it has evolved since then, however, the Micro-Enterprise Project has not exclusively focused on the recently laid-off worker, Castillo says. “The project started as a pilot trying to focus on displaced garment industry workers and help them start businesses. But because of our capacity and me being the sole attorney and the difficulty in targeting displaced workers who lost jobs years before, we ended up expanding the scope of the project to all low-income micro-entrepreneurs.” CLIENTS’ STORIES Since starting with the project in May 2001, Castillo has provided legal advice to more than a dozen clients with circumstances similar to Lucila Cantu. A 38-year-old seamstress who lost her factory job in 1999 when Dallas-based Haggar Corp. closed a plant in the Valley, Cantu started a beauty salon shortly after she got fired. She was floundering, she says, until Castillo helped her get the proper permits for state licenses. The lawyer also helped Cantu research in advance the law’s requirements for salon facilities before the displaced factory worker spent her family’s investment on constructing a new extension to her home to house the beauty shop. Castillo advised Cantu before she started construction that the state required her to provide customers with bathroom facilities. “She would have spent the money, had I not been around, and then found out she had to build this bathroom, and then been forced to spend more. I’d like to think I’m heading off all sorts of problems like that,” Castillo says. Cantu says she welcomes the legal assistance. “The business is small right now. But we are hoping to get more and more clients,” she says. She still does not earn as much as she did from Haggar. But she says, “I like the fact it is my own business.” Maria Bautista, a 42-year-old mother of three grown children, had worked for Haggar for six years before she lost her job two years ago. Castillo has helped Bautista, who has been sewing professionally since she was 12, apply for insurance for the two employees she has hired to help her produce prom dresses and school uniforms. Selling retail, Bautista says, she does not yet earn on a consistent basis as much as she made at Haggar. But she hopes with a new proposed contract with a hospital — that Castillo helped her draw up — her revenues and profits will start climbing soon. “I couldn’t have done it without Yvonne,” Bautista says. The beauty of the project, Castillo says, is its novel approach. Instead of offering reactive legal services to the poor when they are facing eviction, debt-collection or responses to other troubles, the Micro-Enterprise Project offers them assistance to help them work their way out of their impoverished conditions. Since starting with the Micro-Enterprise Project in May 2001, Castillo has signed about 15 clients. Some, she concedes, have not exactly met the criteria initially established for the project. Early on in her tenure at TRLA, Castillo says she represented one client in litigation against a former employer from whom she had purchased a home-nursing business. But, Castillo says, that client does not represent the kind of entrepreneur she expects the project to help in the future. She instead plans to focus on businesses young enough not to have required any litigation services. To help identify more clients, the legal aid lawyer has developed contacts in the community with other nonprofit agencies working with the same population. “I don’t have a flood of clients, but I know there are more out there who have the need for these services,” Castillo says. As a way of attracting more clients, Castillo sponsored a fair at a local Edcouch school in April for nonprofit community organizations that provide assistance to startup businesses in the Valley. Maria Garza is a client whom Castillo contacted through another nonprofit agency, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in Alamo. CEO is a nonprofit incubator organization for small businesses. The 43-year-old Garza, who owns her business with her husband, had located her fledgling yogurt- and cheese-producing operation in the space provided by CEO. Castillo helped Garza get permits from the local health department. “I appreciate everything Yvonne has done. She makes me feel more secure,” Garza says. Castillo recognizes that two other components, apart from legal concerns, are critical before fledgling entrepreneurs can take advantage of her project’s legal services. The startups need funding and technical advice about business creation. But working with a number of nonprofit community organizations in the Valley, Castillo has tried to pair her program with some of the existing lenders and business advisers who target the same groups. Many of the prospective clients that the Micro-Enterprise Project targets, Castillo says, are the laid-off garment industry workers who have all the skills to launch small-scale garment factories but lack the funding, contacts and legal infrastructure to do so. She plans to have the project help one woman, for instance, who received pallets full of brassieres as salvage from VF Corp., the manufacturer of the Vanity Fair clothing line. The industrious woman has produced a line of purses by cutting the straps off the salvage bras and weaving the straps into handbags, Castillo says. But so far, she hasn’t found a market for the unusual items. In addition to standing ready to field her legal needs, Castillo says, she will also help the garment-maker identify retail contacts in more cosmopolitan and fashion-conscious areas like Dallas. THE RIGHT STUFF Initially, TRLA had trouble, Castillo recalls, finding a lawyer with the right skills and background to direct the Micro-Enterprise Project. Castillo grew up in a Spanish-speaking family with its roots in the Valley. “My hundreds of relatives are spread out all over there,” she says. The 34-year-old lawyer clerked for Colorado state district Judge Harlan Bockman after graduating from the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder. After a stint in the Colorado Public Defenders Office, Castillo worked at Denver’s Montgomery, Kolodny, Amatuzio & Dusbabek for one year, where she served as a trial lawyer but also picked up some business experience, she says. The work at a private firm, however, didn’t satisfy her. “I didn’t like the money-driven need for billable hours,” Castillo recalls. In May, Castillo plans to return to the private sector but not at a firm. Long interested in pursuing public policy, Castillo says, she has accepted a position as a regulatory attorney and lobbyist for the Texas Society of Architects in Austin. Castillo and her boss, TRLA executive director David Hall, expect she will maintain a consulting relationship with TRLA. As a consultant, she will help continue to cultivate the contacts she previously established between the Micro-Enterprise Project and private firms. Eventually, Castillo hopes, those firms will help her successor provide pro bono transactional legal advice to fledgling entrepreneurs in the Valley. Steven Tyndall, an associate with Austin’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, serves as the contact between TRLA and his firm. So far, he says, Castillo has approached his firm about helping establish nonprofit corporate, 501(c), status for several organizations that help the micro-entrepreneurs. When TRLA comes to ask for direct help for a for-profit entrepreneur, Tyndall says he will have to run the proposal through an additional check. “We’d have to run it through the pro bono committee,” Tyndall says, since the firm has a standing policy of only offering free legal advice to nonprofits. But it may be that TRLA is able to replace Castillo when she leaves and add additional staff. The Levi Strauss Foundation, according to its Austin-based consultant Monica Cruz, initially supported the Micro-Enterprise Project because of the historically high unemployment rate in the Valley, which was exacerbated by the garment manufacturer’s previous plant closings. “They are definitely filling a need in that area,” Cruz says about the project. “This may be something the foundation wants to support even more especially in light of the recently announced plant closings,” Cruz says. Indeed, Hall already has lined up two lawyers to replace Castillo. He says he has plans to expand the Micro-Enterprise Project. Notes Hall, “Yvonne has done a bang-up job getting this off the ground. Now that we’ve got the learning experience, we can really take off. I’m not concerned about where the funding will come from because this is a good project. Lots of people will want to support it.”

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