April 6, 2011 – Last year, John Aikman had an idea: Link Wisconsin farms with consumers who want to know the origin of the meat and poultry they consume. But the local entrepreneur needed legal advice on a slim budget.
Enter the U.W. Law School’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, which operates like a law firm and provides free legal services to entrepreneurs in the start-up phase.
Aikman applied for the clinic’s services last September. Christopher Snyder, a third-year law student, serves as Aikman’s student-legal counsel and helped him form and develop Home Grown Cow, which is set to accept consumer orders this month.
NBC’s local affiliate in Madison recently featured Aikman’s new business, which already has farms lined up to participate. The company’s website lets Wisconsin farmers maintain their own profile, sort of like Facebook. The site identifies consumers’ specific needs, like a requirement that cows be grass-fed, and connects them with farms that meet those needs.
Aikman’s start-up business required legal help with incorporation, contract agreements, patent and FDA regulatory issues, and liability concerns.
“It would have been quite expensive to have a private lawyer do what the entrepreneurship program did,” said Aikman, who serves as Home Grown Cow’s chief executive officer and has a background in e-commerce. He lives in rural Wisconsin, but grew up overseas. “It’s a fantastic program for entrepreneurs, and I think law students learn a lot about real life law practice.”
The new law clinic, developed by U.W. law school professors Eric Englund and Anne Smith (co-directors), serves the school’s “law-in-action” philosophy, helps students gain practical experience, and assists entrepreneurs in bringing their ideas to the marketplace.
“The clinic started in 2009 with eight students, no clients, and no space,” Englund said. “But we hit the deck running, and today we have 16 students, a backlog of clients, and extremely active participation from the private bar.”
Englund says partnership with private bar members is instrumental, and stresses that the clinic does not compete with law firms or private attorneys.
“It’s critical to our operation that we not compete with lawyers,” Englund said. “We tend to serve clients that do not otherwise have access to the private bar because of financial reasons but will have access once they can move into the mainstream of business.”
The student law firm
As a way to stimulate innovation, the clinic provides the legal component necessary for new business to commence, and gives crucial training to future lawyers.
Snyder said his dealings with clients like Aikman can’t be learned in the classroom, and this law-in-action approach will definitely help him after graduation.
“Most of the students in the clinic have taken classes that are relevant to what the clinic does, mostly business law-related courses” Snyder said. “But it’s much different preparing for an exam than it is to prepare for a client meeting.”
Snyder drafted and filed documents for incorporation of Home Grown Cow, researched relevant regulations, and drafted contract agreements, among other tasks. When an issue comes up, Aikman talks to Snyder directly.
Snyder assesses the issue, consults with others, and develops a solution. The students practice under rules that allow them to gain practical training under the guidance of supervising attorneys. Supervising attorneys, mostly lawyers from law firms around the state, review the final work product and make recommendations on a pro bono basis.
Paul Karch, an attorney in Godfrey & Kahn’s Madison office, serves on the clinic’s advisory committee. He said the clinic plays a role in providing clinical training to future lawyers who are crucial to the long-term success of the state’s economy.
“It’s often difficult for new lawyers to sort out the legal from nonlegal issues,” Karch said. “In law school, everything is a legal issue. But everything I’ve advised students on or talked to them about are the types of issues my clients face every day.”
As law students develop lawyering skills through interactions with clients, they help entrepreneurs bring new ideas to fruition. Although the clinic has a growing backlog of potential clients, it doesn’t accept all applicants.
Englund says the clinic screens applicants (both in-state and outside Wisconsin) through an application process based on need, concept or idea, and business plan or model, among other things. The clinic doesn’t take clients it doesn’t expect to succeed.
Aside from clients like Home Grown Cow, the clinic has helped a children’s sports charity, an aquaponics farm, an energy drink business, a mobile phone applications company, and a start-up business that developed a cooking stove for use in third world countries, among others.
Once applicants are accepted, the clinic performs an intake in-person, by phone, or even using technology like Skype. The clinic, which maintains a paperless record system, assesses the client’s needs and assigns a student or students to perform the work.
Students collaborate like partners on issues of client development and engage outside experts to discuss important issues relating to client needs and representation. An advisory committee, which consists of lawyers in law firms across the state, meets periodically to discuss the legal issues of clients and review student work.
The clinic provides the services any law firm would. Englund says the clinic’s interface with the private bar has broadened the scope of the kinds of services offered.
“Because of the infrastructure of the advisory committee, we’ve been able to provide quality legal services in many different areas of law,” Englund said.
Englund says the supervising attorneys also encourage students to provide clients with diverse resources on funding, accounting, or business planning, which is part of the experience of teaching these future lawyers to be resourceful in various capacities.
“The students are so excited about the work that sometimes you have to tell them to slow down, or take a second look,” Englund said. “They are out there being a partner in a law firm, but they haven’t had the seasoning that normally comes through private practice.”
But Snyder says he’s happy to get practical training now, rather than wait to learn from scratch on the job. The clinic is “a good way to get out there” and help clients make “both good legal decisions, and good business ones,” he said. “I’m learning a lot about the practice of law.”
As of January 2011, the clinic had 49 active files. Some of its applicants, like Aikman, are referred by lawyers who know about the program. About 60 law students applied for 16 spots for the upcoming summer, and some continue during the fall and spring.
Law students work 40 hours per week for eight weeks in the summer, receive four credits, and a $2,500 stipend. The clinic currently operates on a $170,000 per year budget. Englund hopes it can continue to expand the program to get more students involved.
“Based on the feedback we get from students, clients, and private bar members, there’s clearly room to expand the program,” Englund said. “The issue becomes one of funding. The good news is that people see the value of this program to lawyer and entrepreneurial development. So we are confident that additional funding streams will present themselves.”
For more information on U.W. Law School’s Law and Entrepreneurship program, visit the clinic’s webpage.
By Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin