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Do-good law firm stuck in ethical Catch-22

Galit Menahem, left, a women’s abuse counsellor, joined forces with lawyer Pamila Bhardwaj three years ago to create a firm dedicated to representing victims of domestic abuse in Toronto.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Three years ago, Galit Menahem approached family lawyer Pamila Bhardwaj with a risky business proposition.

Ms. Menahem, a licensed paralegal and women's abuse counsellor, wanted to join forces with a lawyer to create a firm dedicated to representing victims of domestic abuse. After working many years on the family court circuit, Ms. Bhardwaj saw the need.

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Family violence accounts for 25 per cent of all reported violent crime in Canada, and women are twice as likely as men to be victims. Ms. Menahem says she escaped her own abusive marriage thanks to a network of social services, and she felt a strong pull toward helping others in the same way she was helped.

"The whole idea for creating this model came from my own experience. I was lucky because I had services to support me, but there are so many people who don't know where to find these resources," she says from her Toronto office.

"Once I started working [as a counsellor], I would refer clients to lawyers and I found there was a lack of understanding and knowledge about how to help beyond the legal. When the clients don't have that knowledge, they end up feeling vulnerable. They don't know what to do and they go back to their abuser. They feel like they have no choice."

Client safety – both physical and emotional – is a big part of what Bhardwaj Law Firm seeks to offer. While Ms. Bhardwaj represents clients in court, Ms. Menahem provides counselling, help with paperwork and direction to accessing the right resources.

"Sometimes they block bank accounts and she has no access to money. Sometimes it's housing, sometimes it's legal aid. Many times there are language barriers so we have to make sure we have proper interpretation," Ms. Menahem says.

Sadly, business is booming. But because of the nature of their work, and the often-scant resources of their clients, Ms. Bhardwaj and Ms. Menahem are losing thousands of billable hours on what amounts to pro bono work.

"If it's a Legal Aid client, many times they run out of hours on their Legal Aid certificate," Ms. Bhardwaj says. "It's impacting on our business day, and I'm losing billable hours that I could have spent on another client. But this client has an emergency that needs to be addressed.

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"In that respect it's affecting our bottom line. We still have a firm to run." Ms. Bhardwaj estimates they have lost between $75,000 and $140,000 a year since implementing the business model. Neither woman has any plans to scale back their services.

They also aren't able to hire more qualified staff to help shoulder the workload as long as they're stuck in this ethical Catch-22. Finding the money for additional salaries remains out of reach.

While they are able to cover their overhead, expansion is out of the question. "If we were actually paid the hours we're working, I'd be in a position to take on a junior lawyer to help me with that load and be able to compensate the junior lawyer," says Ms. Bhardwaj. "Given the stage I'm at now, I wouldn't be able to hire more than an articling lawyer."

The Challenge: How can this specialized law firm make up for lost wages without compromising the dedicated, hands-on nature of its work?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Geoff Bagg, staffing and recruitment expert and president and chief executive officer, Bagg Group, Toronto

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The partners must accept that they have to put on their own oxygen mask first, as they say. They don't have a choice because if they go under, no one gets helped.

First, set up a triage system that implements a protocol to determine priority, with screening questions to identify which pro bono cases they will accept. Next, they need to factor non-billable activities into the strategic planning. What do they need to bill to hire staff, avoid burnout and make a decent living? Then determine how much pro bono work they can afford, and write it in as a line item.

Remember, if they require financing, banks need to verify that you have a profitable business model in place. Finally, they need to do what they do for others: Ask for expert help, pro bono. The partners have a needs gap, and there are many eager to assist a socially responsible company like theirs to fill it. Expert volunteers can serve as strategic planners, apply for grants, etc.

Barry Martin, CEO, strategy, and design lead at Hypenotic, a marketing group serving socially responsible brands, Toronto

Let me start by admitting that service businesses and entrepreneurship (especially of a social bent) are never easy. Hypenotic has been at this since 1998 and I'm grateful that we enjoy the hours because the minutes are hard.

One idea is to consider crowdfunding, or appealing to the public good to raise capital. The novelty of the approach could earn them media attention, in turn leading to more clients and funding. Another avenue is to consider becoming a non-profit. Our client the Canadian Constitution Foundation offers legal support to cases that can bring attention to laws that don't keep up with the times.

Many large organizations also use corporate social responsibility to build their brand. This kind of approach could engage the generation of employees who like to know their employer is making positive change.

Richa Gupta, CEO of the social enterprise Good Food for Good, which donates one meal to a hungry child per item sold, Toronto

My company uses 100-per-cent organic ingredients and has donated more than 6,000 meals to hungry children. I face similar challenges when I am asked to compromise on the quality of ingredients to improve my production process or to stop donating food until my business is profitable. But I believe food should be made with fresh, whole ingredients, so substituting organic tomatoes with canned tomatoes is out of question, even though doing so will make the sourcing and production simpler.

Galit and Pamila may want to consider adopting the one-for-one business model championed by the U.S. shoe firm Toms and followed by my company, which donates one free service or product for every product sold. For example, they can offer one hour of free legal services to one client for every paid hour from another.

Another idea is to find partners to help in areas that are not core to their business model. We rely exclusively on our partners such as the Akshaya Patra Foundation and FoodShare to offer meal donations, and I know there are several Toronto not-for-profits that can help with counselling and emergency services and free up more of Galit's time so she can focus on legal services.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Raise funds

Set up an online fundraising bid to raise capital for additional staff or to cover unpaid hours. The altruistic minded will be interested.

Recruit volunteers

Civic-minded legal professionals would be happy to volunteer time and energy toward an important cause.

Look for a partner

Consider forming a partnership with a domestic violence foundation that will provide the firm with resources toward maintaining their mandate.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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