Attorneys create free, virtual clinic to give immigrant Asian business owners legal help

Lawyers Helping Our Community helps the Chinatown business community with civil issues ranging from evictions to insurance claims.

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Attorney and co-founder of Lawyers Helping Our Community Legal Clinic Erica Yang poses for a portrait at her Apartment building in Near East Side, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

Attorney Erica Yang co-founded Lawyers Helping Our Community Legal Clinic, a free, virtual clinic to help the Chinatown business community navigate any language issues to tackle civil matters such as evictions and insurance claims.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Years after Erica Yang immigrated to the United States, she can still remember how she felt as a teen in a new country.

“The feeling of vulnerability and anxiety and what it feels like to be an outsider,” said Yang, who came to the U.S. from China. “I still remember that feeling when I was in high school.”

Those memories are why Yang, a commercial finance attorney at the Katten Muchin Rosenman law firm, recently co-founded a free, virtual legal clinic aimed at those in the Asian community in Chicago whose primary language isn’t English.

Lawyers Helping Our Community, under the umbrella of the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, launched in June as a completely virtual clinic to help the Chinatown business community with civil issues such as evictions and insurance claims.

Yang, 29, thought of the idea for the clinic during the coronavirus pandemic when in-person appointments at many pro bono legal clinics were halted. At the same time, she was hearing business owners in the Chinatown area were struggling to stay afloat.

The clinic, which includes about 60 volunteer attorneys and law students, has worked with about 30 clients. The volunteers speak various languages like Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese, Yang said.

Julie Shin reached out to the clinic after seeing a post about it on Facebook. Her family’s South Shore beauty store, 2357 E. 75th St., was damaged by a fire during the days of unrest after George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.

While Shin speaks English, she had trouble making sense of the store’s insurance and lease documents as the family tried to figure out what damage would be covered.

Volunteers from the clinic helped them figure out that all the damages couldn’t be covered by their insurance. Even with the coverage and money from a GoFundMe, Shin said her parents won’t be able to reopen the store they had operated since 2004.

“It was very tragic,” she said. “We are also thankful that people tried to help us, like (the) community and lawyers. We are also thankful that there are good people out there.”

Businesses have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, and some owners have seen business drop by as much as 80%, said Jimmy Lee, vice president of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber plans to launch an app with the help of Lawyers Helping Our Community that will give consumers coupons to spend at certain Chinatown businesses in an attempt to bring customers to the area, Lee said. The volunteer attorneys have been sorting out issues surrounding the app’s privacy and figuring out to how sign up businesses, Lee said.

In Chinatown, business is partially down because they are seeing fewer international students frequent the area and because there aren’t crowds from nearby conventions that once dined in the neighborhood, Lee said. And while some businesses have gotten help from the government, Lee said he wasn’t sure if more help was coming.

“We can’t sit over there waiting for help,” Lee said. “If the help is not there, what can we do? We need to have a backup plan or another plan to get the economy recovered.”

Margaret Benson, executive director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, said they were hearing of business owners being affected by the pandemic as early as February, before the state imposed restrictions on businesses.

Immigrant communities are vulnerable because of language barriers and because they are often targeted by scam artists, Benson said. This can lead to trust issues in the community, but she credited Yang and Eric Zhi, another attorney who started the clinic, with working with the community to let the public know the resource could be trusted.

“Language is a huge barrier, and they’ve taken care of that,” Benson said.

Zhi, a real estate attorney at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, said he also wants the clinic to serve as a way to create mentorship for law students in Chicago. Like Yang, Zhi was also born in China, and he lived in Canada before coming to the U.S.

“We were thinking how can we better help our community,” Zhi said. “How can we help the community and how do we build a long-term relationship that is through our work.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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