Toronto, Canada

Business Law for Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Connect Legal

March 21, 2012

Improving business outcomes by connecting immigrant entrepreneurs to pro bono legal services.

Starting a small business is a challenge anywhere, in any economy, whatever the tax or legal system. It is one thing to come up with the great idea,  it is another to navigate the risks and pitfalls of a business start-up.

The average immigrant entrepreneur has the initiative, drive and appetite for hard work that’s required for success. But managing risk and understanding the legal structures of a new country?  That really is like speaking a new language.

Sanjay Pandrala knows this all too well.  Equipped with a background in horticulture from India and  a dream to start his own business, Pandrala had already attained the required licences his business needed (as mandated by the province of Ontario ) when he ran into trouble. When it came to actually starting his business – registration, contracts and the like – Pandrala found himself lost in the Canadian legal system.

Fortunately Pandrala got help when he needed it most.  A unique Toronto-based legal service called Connect Legal introduced Pandrala to its Free Lawyer Matching Program. It wasn’t long before his new company, BUGMAN Pest Control Landscaping Services and Trading, was up and running thanks to the volunteer  lawyer from a major Toronto law firm who helped him create the customized contracts essential to running his business.

“I could not have started the business without Connect Legal,” said Pandrula while sharing his story on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

Providing services to new entrepreneurs

Started in Toronto in March 2010 by commercial services lawyer Marion Annau, Connect Legal fosters entrepreneurship in the immigrant community by providing legal education workshops and pro bono (free) commercial legal assistance to low-resource immigrant entrepreneurs.

Many immigrants are accidental entrepreneurs. A 2010 Statistics Canada study found that 33% of self-employed immigrants became self-employed due to a lack of job opportunities in the paid labour market, compared to just 20% of those self-employed who were non-immigrants.

This makes the services provided by Connect Legal, a not-for-profit, even more critical for newcomers.

“I understand the complexity of legal requirements,” says Annau, “For people who didn’t grow up in our legal system and are speaking English as a second language, they would be even more opaque.”

Connect Legal’s business model was inspired by Annau’s work in New York City with an organization called Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA). Like other American legal clinics serving low-resource groups (for example, North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program),  VLA relies on volunteer lawyers to deliver pro bono legal assistance to individuals who could not otherwise afford a lawyer.

After returning to Toronto, Annau approached the head of pro bono at the law firm where she had started her career, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, and found support for the fledgling non-profit. Other high profile legal firms were quick to follow.

Two-pronged approach

Clients like Pandrala work with Connect Legal in two ways. First, entrepreneurs are identified for the program through Connect Legal’s partnerships with local community organizations, non-profits and educational institutions with existing programs to support small business. Once these organizations have pre-screened the business idea for viability, the aspiring entrepreneur is eligible for Connect Legals’s commercial law workshops which are targeted to entrepreneurs and small business owners.

For clients whose businesses need further assistance and have been in Canada for less than ten years,  Connect Legal also provides the Free Lawyer Matching Program. Successful applicants to this program are paired with volunteer lawyers from Connect Legal’s well-established professional network. Each lawyer works one-on-one with the client/entrepreneur to address specific legal needs related to the growth of his or her business. This includes drafting contracts, obtaining permits and negotiating agreements that are essential to starting and building their business.

“In my workshops, I tell them it’s like the rules of a soccer game,” says Annau. “If everybody tries to play soccer and nobody knows the rules, it will be the worst soccer game ever.”

The purpose of commercial law, Annau continues,  is to set up a playing field where everybody knows the rules:  “Until you know the rules, you either crash into them head first or you run your business in a very inefficient way.”


Since its inception in 2010, Connect Legal has assisted more than 700 small business owners through its workshops and Free Lawyer Matching Program in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA),  engaging a growing network of community partnerships that includes including Centennial College, Microskills Development Canada, Newcomer Centre of Peel, and the Canadian Youth Business Foundation Newcomer Program. In the 2012 program year, 380 entrepreneurs participated in a total of 33 legal education workshops.

Hundreds of hours of pro bono services have been provided to immigrant entrepreneurs who would not otherwise have had access to legal advice. At the same time, 100% of the participating lawyers surveyed are interested in doing more pro bono work with these enterprising new Canadians.

This Good Idea will be featured in “Marketplace of Good Ideas” at the 2014 Cities of Migration conference in Berlin. Learn more about the conference.

Making it Work for You:

  • Early interventions save time and money, lower risk and increase the chances of entrepreneurial success.
  • Highly skilled volunteers and pro bono services offer established professional organizations unique opportunities to develop expertise with special client groups.
  • Encourage successful clients to share their success and inspire others in the wider community.
  • One-to-one mentoring helps build confidence and trust in future success.

For this Good Idea contact:

Marion Annau, Connect Legal
20 Bloor Street East
P.O. Box 75005
Toronto, Ontario, Canada,
M4W 3T3