The Lawyer Is In

The Lawyer Is In

The Legal Cafe dishes up free advice for anyone looking to start something new.

At Oakland’s Crossroads Cafe, attorney Janelle Orsi sits with entrepreneur Susan Beck, who is seeking legal advice about her urban farm. As bowls of nuts and dried apricots are passed around, Beck, 42, asks whether her farm should be structured as a partnership. She’s also wondering how to make things fair in a collaborative business where people put in different amounts of effort. Beck could be having this conversation in a stuffy office where the lawyer wears a suit and charges $300 per hour. But Orsi, 33, is here to answer Beck’s questions at no charge, as part of the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe, a weekly experiment in legal generosity and community building.

Orsi often consults with people who want to create legal arrangements for sharing a home or car, starting a cottage business or nonprofit, or setting up a cooperative. She calls her specialty “sharing law” and serves as executive director of Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), which she also co-founded. Orsi launched the cafes this winter as a way of supporting new, community-minded ventures.

Circling up: Lawyer Janelle Orsi addresses people in search of free legal advice at the Legal Cafe. Photo by Lori Eanes.

At the Crossroads, Orsi talks to Beck about the pros and cons of partnerships versus LLCs (limited liability companies). As they turn to Beck’s question about fairness, two women in private law practice, here to learn about sharing law from Orsi, add their ideas about how to divide profits while also creating a workplace culture of generosity. For Beck, who previously worked in upper management, the meeting opens up new possibilities. “If you’re not the owner and everyone has equal input, that can be challenging,” she says. “I’ve been struggling with the different options for how to include people.”

Orsi, who was recognized by the American Bar Association in 2010 as a “legal rebel,” wants the cafes to be models that other communities can replicate. She says she doesn’t know of any other legal clinics that are held in a relaxed, interactive space and offer walk-in advice on getting new projects off the ground. “These one-time legal advice sessions are probably the most valuable time you’ll get out of any lawyer,” she says, “because that’s the moment where you get set on a certain course. We’re trying to point people in the right direction, help them figure out what type of entity they’ll choose and how they’re going to form it; from there, there’s a lot that people can do on their own.”

Orsi describes the cafes as one-third legal advice clinic, one-third living classroom, and one-third community-building space. They also serve as a magnifying glass, she adds, highlighting the legal barriers facing people who come up with innovative ideas. Orsi is jazzed by the energy and creativity of the people who bring legal questions to her. “I’m loving the clients who come in,” she says. “They’re inspiring and interesting; at the end of every cafe I go home and write down all the questions I couldn’t answer.” Orsi later asks her legal interns to research these questions—for example, what are the voting requirements for nonprofit membership organizations? And, could a 501(c)(3) nonprofit justify a crop swap as a charitable activity? Today’s cafe serves five new clients (their average is four) and Orsi expects this number to increase as word gets out.


As people drift into the cafe, two U.C. Berkeley Law School students ask what each person wants help with. Orsi then matches clients with the four advising lawyers present, who include Sushil Jacob, a Berkeley Law grad who founded the Green-Collar Communities Clinic. Jacob’s clinic is an arm of the East Bay Community Law Center and a partner in the legal cafes.

After about 45 minutes discussing Beck’s urban farm, Orsi turns to her next client, Joanne Marino, who also has a farm-related project. Marino’s questions are about FarmShorts, a startup for creating high-quality videos to help farmers market their work. She asks whether FarmShorts should be a for-profit or a nonprofit, a decision that Orsi links to where its revenue will come from—business sponsorships, USDA grants, or charitable contributions. Marino spends close to an hour at the cafe, later noting that given the complexity of starting a new business, traditional legal costs would quickly mount. “This program is an amazing asset,” she says. “It helps young founders figure out how to progress a business in ways that are socially responsible without making any major mistakes.” Like Beck before her, Marino benefits from the legal expertise of everyone at the table. As Orsi works through various ideas, she sometimes turns to the observing attorneys for information or opinions, creating a buzz of conversation around the table.

Orsi is known for her can-do attitude, quick wit, and nifty legal cartoons. She’s also taken on game design, as evidenced by the Monopoly-like board laid out on the table. Although the colorful squares look familiar, this version of the game favors collaborative types over tycoons. Marvin Gardens, Boardwalk, and the rest are gone, replaced by properties like Community Spaces and Justice and Peace Commons. “It’s a conversation starter,” says Orsi. (She’s not trying to market the game; she just wants to get people talking about ways of sharing and collaborating.) It’s also an open-source, unfinished project, meaning that she’s quick to ask clients or colleagues for help finishing the cards, like offering short descriptions of a campus food co-op or a customer-owned brewpub.

The cafes are weekly and rotate among various sites in Oakland and the Hub in Berkeley. YaVette Holts, 49, a fellow at Oakland’s Growing Justice Institute, attended a cafe at Liberating Ourselves Locally, a “maker space” in East Oakland where people come together to make crafts, learn computer skills, and support creative, community-based projects. At the cafe, Holts tapped into Orsi’s knowledge about barter and local currency, a means of exchange valid only within a certain town or neighborhood for the purpose of encouraging local spending.

Holts is developing the East Bay Barter Exchange, a website where people can post tasks they need help completing. There’s a twist, though—payment can be either in dollars or in trade, but to encourage barter, the trade options are more generous. The project increases alternative forms of purchasing power while also offering jobs that might last a few hours or a few days. And thanks to Orsi, Holts has connected with kindred spirits at Bay Bucks, a recently launched local currency and barter service for businesses.

Much of Orsi’s know-how is in areas like barter or alternative currencies, where many traditional lawyers are in the dark. Eager to encourage more lawyers to practice sharing law, Orsi uses the cafes to mentor other attorneys and law students. “One student described the experience as ‘the most fun I’ve had since I started law school,’” she says. Orsi believes that students’ involvement will not only make them more prepared, but more likely to practice sharing law. Three legal apprentices also take part, including Ricardo Nunez, who coordinates the cafes and will be eligible to take the California Bar Exam after he spends four years working for Orsi. A legal apprentice avoids the prohibitive costs of law school, just as the cafes create access for people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

Much as clients appreciate the cafe, it’s not quite the same as having a paid lawyer at your beck and call. Vicki Macchiavello, 36, who runs the Swiss Cheese Childcare Collective, went to the cafe seeking advice on moving from a sole proprietorship to the next stage. “I like the structure of being able to get some advice to empower me,” she says, “but it’s harder because I have to do more footwork.” If Orsi gets sufficient funding from foundations and individuals, she plans to increase the number of cafes and to offer people like Macchiavello full legal representation. To date, she hasn’t charged for cafe services, but she does encourage clients to take a pay-it-forward approach by giving hours to the local timebank, where people help one another out through an exchange based on time rather than dollars. At a timebank, everyone’s time is of equal value, so an hour spent giving a haircut might be used to purchase an hour of bike repair.

Oaklander Olivia Nava, 35, was the cafe’s very first client, and she will use the advice she got there halfway across the world. Nava is collaborating with designers in East Africa to develop solar-powered cell phone chargers, needed in this region where people often travel many hours to charge phones with a generator or car battery. Nava’s plan offers local residents in Tanzania the chance to run their own small business by leasing or franchising the mobile chargers, and she was grappling with legal questions when a friend told her about Orsi’s project. By chance, it was the cafe’s opening day, and Nava hopped on her bike and arrived at the Crossroads five minutes later. “I had no idea what to expect,” she says. “There were four women around the table and a bunch of snacks. I said, ‘Is this legal services?’ and they said, ‘You have our undivided attention and you have four lawyers.’ It was serendipitous.”

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Rachel Trachten is a regular contributor to The Monthly, Edible East Bay, and Oakland Magazine. She also writes a column for on sharing, sustainable living, and the gift economy at

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