Sean M. O’Connor is a Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic at the University of Washington. As the creator of the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, he is a leader in university pro bono service.
Many universities have established business plan competitions. More recently, a number of schools have instituted social entrepreneurship competitions that are similar, but focused on building non-profits, sustainable business, or other social justice oriented ventures. However, all of these programs focus mainly on teaching students how to be entrepreneurs. Equally important are programs to teach professional school students how to serve entrepreneurs.
I designed and launched the University of Washington’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic (ELC) in 2006 to both teach students how to serve entrepreneurs and instill in them a pro bono ethic as they start their careers. I also wanted to create high quality, targeted pro bono opportunities for the many kinds of lawyers and business consultants who shy away from traditional pro bono projects that are outside of their areas of expertise. Of course, I was also being an entrepreneur in developing ELC, because I wanted to find a way to help entrepreneurs of all stripes who can’t afford the legal and consulting services they need to properly launch their ventures.
ELC is a joint venture between the UW Law School and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UW Foster School of Business. We team law and business students together to deliver comprehensive analysis and counseling to entrepreneurs that covers all aspects of the venture. Each team generally has three law students and one or two MBA students. The law student slots are divided into the core entrepreneurship specialties of business law, intellectual property (IP), and tax, with additional emphasis on employment, regulatory, and other law as needed. The MBA student slots so far are either general business, consulting, or assigned according to specialties the client needs, such as marketing, accounting/finance, or operations. The student teams are then assigned supervising attorneys and business consultants from the local Seattle community, with each supervisor specializing in the field in which the student is working (e.g., an IP attorney supervises the IP student team member).
We serve four main categories of clients: technology entrepreneurs; micro-enterprise and small business owners; social entrepreneurs and non-profits; and UW technology spin-offs. The range of our client’s projects is broad. For example, we have helped a prison inmate who is developing a new snack food business to launch after his release, UW researchers with a breakthrough medical device technology, and everything in between. Our main goal is to deliver “preventive” legal and business counseling so that none of these innovators run into roadblocks based on preventable legal or business issues. Our student teams and supervisors are experts at providing “lifecycle” counseling that not only analyzes where the business is today, but also where it will likely go, and the pros and cons of the various paths that it can take. This enables first time entrepreneurs to engage in the kinds of sophisticated business and legal planning that sucessful serial entrepreneurs usually do.
ELC currently fields seven teams each year, with around 20 law students and 10 MBA students. We serve approximately 30 clients each year. Former students have now become both supervisors to new students and in some cases entrepreneurs themselves. We work closely with almost every major law firm in the local community, as well as with numerous community development services and economic development government agencies at the Federal, state, and local level.
Developing ELC was one of the hardest things I have ever done, because I had to bootstrap everything — there was no institutional support for the Clinic wen I began designing it in 2003 after joining the faculty at UW Law School. I also had to do it “on the side” from a full regular teaching and research load as a pre-tenure law professor. So, it was also a huge pro bono project on my part, because I did it outside my regular academic position and was not paid for it. However, then Clinical Law Program Director Alan Kirtley was key in helping me strategize and seek outside resources to launch the Clinic. Ron Howell at the Washington Research Foundation stepped up with a clinical in-kind contribution of office space for the Clinic as we didn’t even have space n the Law School building to launch! The Herbert B. Jones Foundation, Coleman Foundation, and Washington Law School Foundation, each awarded us essential multi-year grants to fund the operations. But in the end, it was worth it. ELC has easily been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. As we look forward to our fifth year of full time operations this coming year, it is amazing to see how we not only survived, but also have now become a model that other professional schools seek to emulate.