Rishan Mohamed has almost everything he needs to build his planned tech start-up. He believes in his idea, has customers to validate his online business model, and has valuable experience from previous jobs developing business partnerships at Google and working as a management consultant at Parthenon Group.
But as the MIT Sloan School of Management MBA student began to develop his new venture, there was one thing he knew he lacked—legal advice.
He found the legal help he needed thanks to a unique new collaboration between the BU School of Law and MIT: the Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic.
Since it opened in September, about 50 MIT students have visited the clinic to discuss with LAW students issues related to starting a company, such as articles of incorporation, contracts for clients and partners, nondisclosure agreements, and how to broach legal matters with prospective investors. Many of the drop-in visitors turn into clients. The clinic’s eight law students—all third-years—are working on 30 active cases, says program director Eve Brown, a LAW clinical instructor. Questrom School of Business students can also get advice at the clinic.
The clinic, held at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship two blocks from Kendall Square, represents an important opportunity for lawyers-in-training who want to gain experience outside of the classroom.
Student lawyers hold Friday office hours, where entrepreneurs can walk in to get help. On a recent Friday, Sudeshna Trivedi (LAW’16) had just finished meeting with Mohamed, one of her several clients. A month into the program, she says the atmosphere is fast-paced and that the program attracted her because of its opportunity to work with real-life clients tackling technology and intellectual property field issues. She and fellow law student advisors collaborate on research to address clients’ questions. (Her experience working in the clinic, Trivedi says, has taught her that it’s OK to tell clients that she’ll get back to them with an answer.) She gets excited by her clients’ ideas and finds herself thinking about the best ways to serve their interests. “You need to develop trust, and it’s important to learn how to do that, particularly as a young law student, while also being passionate about what you are doing,” she says. “I would love to be involved in this space in some capacity in the future.”
Brown says she had more applicants than slots for the two-semester law clinic course and chose the third-years based on their course work, their interest in business law, and client service. The inaugural students also have diverse backgrounds. Trivedi, for example, earned a bachelor’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Some have experience in finance, business, and technology. Kelvin Chan (LAW’16) has an electrical engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Nathaniel Gray (LAW’16) had previously worked as an honors paralegal at the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of General Counsel.
“One of the reasons I was excited about going to school in Boston was because of the rich ecosystem here, with venture capital, private equity, and the entrepreneurial community,” says Gray, whose undergraduate degree in political science is from Kenyon College. “I really get excited about trying to help people—driven, accomplished people—who are trying to create something new of their own.”
Prior to law school, Chan worked for several years as an engineer at Mitre Corporation. Working side-by-side with start-up founders is something he plans to continue after graduation. He says the clinic provides value for both sets of students. He and his colleagues tackle legal questions in the context of technology innovations, and the MIT students get access to real-world advice. “When they are starting a business, they don’t know what they don’t know,” he says. “That’s why it’s good to have something like the clinic. You can tell your story, what you’re doing. And it’s our job to tell you what legal issues you might be concerned with.”
LAW students: lead attorneys, with every issue new
As a full-year course, the Entrepreneurship & IP Clinic covers both legal issues and lessons about serving clients. The LAW students attend class once a week and hold weekly office hours in Cambridge. In their legal course work, they have learned about contract drafting, basic intellectual property law, corporate law, and some transactional law.
These core classes do have case studies and legal briefs, but it’s different when they sit in an office across from someone relying on them for help. Brown says that even if students have some field experience, from a summer internship or clerkship, for instance, they have rarely had a frontline role. In the clinic, they are the lead attorneys, and every issue is new.
“What I really hope for the students is that they feel like they will have grown from students to practicing lawyers, that they feel ownership of their cases, and that they know firsthand how to counsel clients effectively,” she says.
The law clinic is a symbiotic relationship in action. MIT students have been clamoring for help with the legal questions involved in forming a business and protecting their ideas. In a recent blog post, J. Nathan Matias, a PhD candidate at the MIT Center for Civic Media, lauded the new service. “The legal clinic is the culmination of years of discussions and work by student advocates, faculty, and administration to address a recurring need at MIT for robust and supportive legal help for students doing innovative work,” Matias wrote.
Mohamed sees it as an important asset, particularly for young start-ups. “One, we don’t know about the issues that can come up. And two, lawyers are expensive. I wouldn’t be able to afford legal counseling,” he says. Mohamed is also pursuing a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he plans to return to the clinic with more questions. “I have had very minimal experience dealing with lawyers before,” he says. “I think it’s incredible that they can provide this service for free.”
The Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic is the first of two programs LAW and MIT are collaborating on. A second clinic, specializing in technology and cyberlaw, is scheduled to launch next fall. The law students will advise MIT and BU students on laws and regulations affecting their start-ups, such as cybercrime, privacy issues, and data security. The two new programs join a roster of School of Law clinics that include civil and criminal cases, immigrants’ rights, international human rights, and wrongful convictions.
“We’re thrilled to partner with MIT on these cutting-edge new clinics,” says Maureen O’Rourke, dean of LAW. “Our intellectual property program has long been recognized as one of the best in the country, and this addition will give students the kind of practical, hands-on experience working with real clients that will prove invaluable as they begin their careers.”
For more information about the School of Law Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic, email Eve Brown at email@example.com.
Michael S. Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.