Pittsburgh law firm focuses on serving agriculture, food industries

Fresh out of law school a year ago, Marlene van Es and Jaclyn Clifford decide to hang their own shingle and form a law practice where they could focus on a specialty niche serving the food and agriculture industries.

They also wanted to offer affordable prices to potential clients.

“For so many people, the thought of going to a lawyer meant lots of dollars,” said Ms. van Es, co-owner of the North Side-based Trellis Legal firm. “We tried to figure out how can we make the cost more predictable.”

They came up with a fee structure that allows more flexibility than the traditional hourly billing model. Clients can pay a monthly subscription rate to have access to both lawyers for questions or pay a flat rate for work needed on a specific case or project.

Trellis keeps its overhead low by renting work space with other businesses in Alloy 26, a co-working space inside Nova Place.

“We’re still building our foundation,” Ms. van Es said. “We’re not rolling in cash, but we’re able to pay ourselves. We are able to pay for our co-working space and pay all our bills.”

While the billable hours model remains the bread and butter of many law firms, the competitive marketplace has led more firms to devise alternative payment arrangements for clients. For instance, some lawyers who handle cases involving personal injury claims may offer to take a 25 percent cut of any damages recovered, rather than the standard 40 percent.

“We represent a range of clients from agricultural to small urban business,” Ms. van Es said. “Proving predicable and cost-effective rates is crucial to our clients being able to access legal services.”

Ms. van Es, 27, and Ms. Clifford, 28, met while attending the University of Pittsburgh law school and discovered they both were passionate about environmental law. They started an organization in law school researching policy for nonprofit organizations related to the food business and advocating for Pittsburgh’s green economy.

They both graduated in May 2015 and passed the state bar examination that October. A few months later, their firm opened on Jan. 1.

Trellis Legal practices business law, which includes zoning, permitting and land use issues. Their clients are largely small businesses, such as restaurants and caterers in Allegheny County. They also work with some urban farms and nonprofit clients. One client, they said, was a general store that wanted to sell local food and produce. Another nonprofit client was looking to take over an urban farm.

One of their earliest mentors was Pitt law professor Stephanie Dangel, who also is executive director of Pitt law school’s Innovative Practice Institute.

“They came to me during their third year of law school and said they had a real interest in combining a legal career with their commitment to urban agriculture and ecological development in Pittsburgh,” Ms. Dangel said. She suggested they enter their idea in the university’s Big Idea contest, and they were one of the winners.

“I think they are true leaders in combining their law practice with social entrepreneurship. They are playing an important role in sustainable development here in Pittsburgh,” Ms. Dangel said.

Carolyn Pierotti, owner of Purple Room Fine Art in Manchester, was referred to Trellis Legal by a friend.

“I needed to work with lawyers who are open-minded and willing to tailor legal contracts to what I’m doing for my business,” said Ms. Pierotti, who represents about 30 artists and arranges places to exhibit their artwork.

“When I’m connecting an artist to a business, I needed a three-party contract to connect the client to the business and myself to the client and the business,” she said. “Contracts are scary anyway and I wanted it to be not so frightening to my artists. I needed it to be readable for them to understand it.”

Ms. van Es said the firm receives much of its business through referrals. They set up tables for their firm at community events, such as the Wilkinsburg vacant homes event. They also co-host events with nonprofit organizations like 412 Food Rescue.

“It helps us connect ourselves, showing that we are a community-focused law firm,” Ms. van Es said. “We have expertise in food service, but we also appeal to people who need affordable legal services.”

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591

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