‘Sharing Lawyer’ Carves Out Niche Leveraging Community

Posted Sep 21, 2010 1:22 PM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

Janelle Orsi
See video below

Two young families purchase a duplex together intending to share their assets in the spirit of casual co-housing. A retired couple who bought a single-family home with a longtime friend adds an addition so they can live separately, yet time-share the kitchen and a handful of other resources. Ten families come together to build a day care center and cooperatively care for each others’ children in one member’s home. All are clients of Janelle Orsi, a Berkeley, Calif.-based lawyer who launched her own practice after law school aiming to “grease the wheels” of a sharing economy in her community.

As a self-proclaimed sharing lawyer, Orsi drafts contracts for shared housing, cars and workspaces. She helps structure child care cooperatives, eco-villages and community-supported urban gardens. Orsi also explains the tax and regulatory issues that surround barter agreements and co-op small businesses.

“People haven’t told me it’s crazy because I won’t make money,” says Orsi, 30. “People say it’s crazy because they don’t think other people will want to share.”

Orsi recalls one lawyer who emphatically announced no person would allow strangers to garden in the family yard. Today a Berkeley-based network of urban gardeners boasts 800 members who have offered the use of their large and often manicured backyards to form shared gardens.

Orsi predicts every community will soon need the services of lawyers who specialize in helping people share.

“I think a lot of people are realizing that sharing is one of the most important things we can do to live more sustainably and affordably,” Orsi says. “Plus, sharing makes life more fun and interesting.”

“And although I probably won’t make six figures, I know that I can make a decent living,” Orsi says. Currently she breaks even, but her practice continues to grow.

“I love knowing that I’m creating the change I want to see in the world.”

While Orsi is committed to her core ideals, she admits starting a practice straight out of law school (and in uncharted territory) has its challenges.

Estimating the amount of time a project will consume and spotting issues in cases without much precedent, such as employment and tax issues related to co-op small businesses, has been tough.

Finding clients, however, hasn’t. Six months into her practice, Orsi met Nolo book editor and author Emily Doskow during a birthday celebration at their shared workspace. Doskow, a solo family law practitioner in Berkeley, had been on the hunt for a new publishing opportunity and, upon listening to Orsi’s practice agenda, offered her a book deal on the spot. They also co-author a blog, The Sharing Solution.

“As soon as she started to describe her practice, she spoke to my own feelings on sustainability, community and the future,” Doskow says. “This is where things need to go. It’s positive and creative, as opposed to other political agendas that are negative and propose to tear things down.”

Orsi’s commitment to sharing overflows into her home life and a new nonprofit venture.

Until her recent marriage, Orsi’s living arrangement looked like three neighboring houses. However, the six adult tenants share a vacuum cleaner, bicycle pump, party supplies and tools. Orsi does her laundry at her neighbor’s home and cooks dinner every Wednesday night for her neighbors across the street in exchange for them cooking on Mondays. With the help of casual agreements to lend each other a car from time to time, the two-adult households get by with one car each. Orsi also shares her law practice space and a separate co-working space for her nonprofit, the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

The SELC is a partnership created to develop a resource bank for sharing communities. It also provides internship opportunities to law students eager to explore sharing law.

“Many people see law as a series of stumbling blocks filled with zoning restrictions and city ordinances, particularly in urban agriculture,” says Christopher Curran, 29, a 3L at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and an SELC intern. “Janelle helps people navigate through obstacles with an eye toward policy work and advocacy so we can adopt changes to make the legal system more supportive of the innovative ‘green’ work of many social entrepreneurs.”

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