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Kayla Acklin has a manageable caseload but one client keeps her particularly busy. The client, a Boston-based start-up that has developed a mobile app for small businesses, is seeking new investment, and Ms Acklin is helping the company prepare for this process by issuing shares, writing contracts with developers and drafting other agreements. But she is not a lawyer — yet.
Ms Acklin is a third-year student at Boston College Law School (BC Law for short), enrolled in the school’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Clinic, which gives students practical exposure to “entrepreneurship law”: employment, intellectual property, licensing, regulation. “I feel like this client’s business is in my hands,” says Ms Acklin.
As universities around the US add entrepreneurship programmes to their curricula, law schools are following suit by establishing clinics for would-be lawyers to advise early-stage ventures. The clinics allow prospective attorneys to get hands-on experience representing entrepreneurs and they let entrepreneurs, who may be students or locals, obtain free legal advice on how to commercialise their ideas.
In the clinics, law students shepherd founders through the basics of employment law, help them negotiate contracts with vendors and guide them through the legal and regulatory compliance issues around trademarks and copyrights. A licensed attorney supervises these activities.
The clinics provide good practice for aspiring attorneys, says Bernice Grant, clinical supervisor of the Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Our students have to quickly get up to speed and learn about the industry in which their clients operate,” she says.
“You don’t need to have an MBA [to advise companies], but you do need to be financially literate. You need to be able to speak the language of business and understand the difference between things like gross margin, profit and revenue.”
Last year, Boston University School of Law and MIT set up a clinic to help student entrepreneurs. “We have seen an uptick in the number of our law students wanting to either represent entrepreneurs or become entrepreneurs themselves,” says Maureen O’Rourke, dean of BU Law.
Ms O’Rourke attributes the rising demand for legal entrepreneurship education to shifts in the economic landscape. The prospect of working with a founding team of the next Facebook or Uber is a powerful attraction for students. “Our students grew up in an era unlike any other,” she says.
“The rapid pace of technological change combined with the transition from a hard-goods economy to an intellectual economy has made students much more open to, and interested in, opportunities in start-ups. It’s part of the culture.”
Lynnise Pantin, the founding director of the entrepreneurship clinic at BC Law, says that the changing job market for lawyers is also driving the trend. The global financial crisis forced many firms to downsize, which led to an oversupply of lawyers for available jobs.
In order to make their students more competitive after their education, many law schools have transformed their approach to training them. “Today’s law schools have adopted a more service-oriented model,” Ms Pantin says.
Students, ever mindful of what they are paying to get their law degree, are becoming more careful about securing the training they need to launch their professional lives. The average private law school tuition hovers around $42,000 according to Law School Transparency, the research group.
“Students are much more targeted about where they want to focus [their careers],” says Ms Pantin, adding that the vast majority of BC Law students who participate in the entrepreneurship clinic are preparing for either a career working with new ventures or one in corporate transactional law. “They are driven and feel that this is what they want to be doing after they get their degree.”
Founded in 2012, the entrepreneurship clinic at the University of Michigan Law School is one of its most sought-after programmes, according to Dana Thompson, its director. “This generation of students is excited about innovation and the idea of being an innovator,” she says. “And at a time when traditional law firm jobs [are disappearing], people are being more creative about finding other professional opportunities.”
The career paths of clinic alumni vary, according to Ms Thompson. Some students do, indeed, end up taking jobs at big law firms; others move to Silicon Valley or various entrepreneurial hotspots and help run businesses; others become venture capitalists.
“Our role is to try to immerse students in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Ms Thompson. “They make connections, network and get ideas for other things they can do with their law degree.”
Ms Acklin says the experience working at the clinic has helped crystallise her career plans. She has secured a job with the law firm Cooley after she graduates next year and will continue working with early-stage companies. “Working with an established company, a lot of what you’re doing is maintenance work,” she says. “But with start-ups, you’re helping them grow.”