Where are the Community Enterprise Lawyers? Towards an Effective Ecosystem of Legal Support For Small-Scale Sustainable Economy Initiatives in Australia

Bronwen Morgan
Joanne McNeill
Isobel Blomfield

This discussion paper documents gaps in professional legal support for small-scale sustainable economy initiatives (SSEIs) in Australia. It draws on (Section 2 and Appendices) data from multiple sources, including a three-year research project on the legal and regulatory support structures for SSEIs, two small surveys of social enterprise, a review of eight cognate initiatives, a review of law firm websites and direct contact with nine social enterprise-related capacity building programs around Australia.The paper first discusses what we mean by SSEIs and their relevance to current debates about innovation, the new economy and the need to respond to urgent economic and environmental challenges (Section 3). Broadly, SSEIs are small-scale enterprises that place a high value on economic democracy, social relationships and community development in their organisational design and provide services that are directly relevant to environmental goals. The definition of an identifiable ‘sector’ in this context remains diffuse, in part because the legal, financial and organisational structures of our current economy do not sit comfortably with these types of initiatives.The paper then identifies existing patterns of support and their limitations (Section 4), especially when understood in the context of the distinctive needs of SSEIs (Section 5). Many of these limitations are shaped by assumptions of a divide between not-for-profit and for-profit legal structures, which maps onto a related gulf between pro bono advice and expensive commercial advice. The paper seeks to transcend this divide and work towards a vision of legal advice and support as a common pool resource.There are three main sources of existing professional legal support for SSEIs. Some law firms provide advice to social enterprises, but most focus on not-for-profit and limited pro bono advice. However, recently some smaller firms are emerging with more of a creative and hybrid focus. There are also a number of cognate initiatives that service social enterprise specifically and in some cases SSEIs, though they have various limitations of scope and resources. Finally, social enterprise capacity-building programs broker select initiatives to access legal advice, sometimes at ‘low-bono’ fee levels.Overall, pro bono legal practitioners appear to have access to well-developed networks to help them identify each other and to share knowledge. In contrast, those attempting to build their expertise and skills around working with social enterprises and SSEIs report difficulty in identifying a network and limited opportunities to share knowledge and expertise around the specific needs of SSEIs.

Suggested citation

Morgan, B., McNeill, J. & Blomfield, I. 2016. Where are the Community Enterprise Lawyers? Towards an Effective Ecosystem of Legal Support For Small-Scale Sustainable Economy Initiatives in Australia. UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2016-50. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2833818 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2833818