Why the Local Food Movement Needs More—and Better—Lawyers

A pilot program in Massachusetts connects small farmers and producers with the legal services they need to get their businesses off the ground.

(Photo: Dougal Waters/Getty Images)

Jun 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Felipe Oliveira wishes he could get back the two years he spent in bureaucratic muck while launching his Boston-based brewery, Percival Beer Company. For the Dorchester-born entrepreneur, it was the legal requirements his start-up had to hurdle—the contracts, licenses, leases, and permits—that kept him from sharing his ales and lagers.

It was 24 months exactly from the day Oliveira founded his company to the sale of the first beer—but the process could have taken even longer. Somewhere in the middle of that time, he was connected with an attorney willing to help him not only navigate the remainder of the permitting and licensing process but also protect Percival Beer Company from a trademark or food-safety lawsuit.

“For me, that’s what was very important,” Oliveira recalls. “Especially in the beverage industry where you’re making a beverage that’s being consumed by customers, there’s a lot of liability there. Not having the time to research all the risks, having an attorney there to walk you through it was priceless. I wish I had those attorneys in the beginning.”

For an entrepreneur trying to save capital every place he can, Oliveira says the best part was the attorneys’ billing rate: nothing.

The pro-bono lawyers came to Percival Beer Company through the newly launched Legal Services Food Hub, a joint project of the Massachusetts-based Conservation Law Foundation and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. It’s a simple solution to a complex problem: Farmers and food entrepreneurs bring their non-litigation legal issues—such as a contract, a commercial lease, the sale of farmland, or trademark questions—to the “hub,” where they are matched with an attorney who will offer services for free.

“Clearly, there’s a robust movement afoot to sustain New England’s communities with locally grown food, [and] legal services are necessary for any small business,” says Elena Mihaly, legal fellow and attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation and coordinator of the Legal Services Food Hub. “What we were finding was that a lot of farmers or food entrepreneurs were not involving an attorney in the beginning of their business, which could hurt the way they set up their business and establish the wrong foundation.”

The Legal Hub, which is operating in Massachusetts its first year but will then expand to other New England states, is unusual in that it is completely free for eligible producers, Mihaly says. Eligible clients include farmers producing food for human consumption, food entrepreneurs like Oliveira, or organizations such as food-related nonprofits. To be eligible for legal services, businesses must be just starting out or still be very small, earning less than $75,000 a year in gross income.

Not only does the Legal Hub help food entrepreneurs start or scale up their businesses, but Mihaly, a lawyer, says attorneys have a strong desire for pro bono cases related to causes they believe. For instance, she imagines a scenario in which a farmers market wants to incorporate and file for LLC status or protect itself legally if, say, someone fell down and got hurt while shopping.

“There’s probably a lawyer that patronizes that farmers market that would be happy to give their time pro bono to establish that farmers market in a way that is safe and has longevity,” Mihaly says. “We want to create an atmosphere where they find each other—that lawyer and the farmers market manager.”

Interest is already high in Massachusetts legal circles. More than 50 attorneys—many of whom specialize in transactional areas of law, such as contracts, real estate, and intellectual property—attended a launch event for the program last week, and Mihaly says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Similar programs may soon begin popping up in other parts of the country. Mihaly knows of one such referral program in the works at the UCLA Law School.

“Lawyers get a bad rap, and farm and food law is a really fun way of practicing law,” she says. “It’s not as adversarial as litigation, and it’s much more rewarding.”

For start-ups like Percival Brewing Company, the service was a “lifesaver,” Oliveira says. As a self-funded business, it didn't have any extra cash lying around to pay a lawyer. "Anywhere we can save money is crucial," he says.