U-M Opens Law Clinic for Student Startups

The entrepreneurial ecosystem at the University of Michigan quietly added another layer last year with the establishment of a law clinic that offers free legal services to student entrepreneurs. Described by officials as a first at the university, the clinic is joining the growing number of similar endeavors on college campuses across the nation as entrepreneurship is increasingly presented as a viable career path to new graduates.

Dana Thompson, one of the U-M professors spearheading the effort, says the clinic offers assistance with a full range of services: corporate formation, protecting or transferring intellectual property, financial documents, contracts, and copyright materials. Thompson says the clinic also does employment law work.

Thompson says that not only do student entrepreneurs benefit, but the law students staffing the clinic are also exposed to entrepreneurs and their legal needs, should they choose to go down that career path. The clinic gets pro bono support from Brooks Kushman, a Southfield, MI-based IP law firm. Ben Stasa, a Brooks Kushman attorney working with the students, says his firm was interested in the collaboration because it was looking for ways to get more involved with the early-stage startup community and the ways they’re bolstering Michigan’s economy.

“We saw that startups don’t often have the tools to protect their assets or IP,” Stasa noted. “It’s one-stop shopping for us. We didn’t have to track down startups to help—they’ve already been through a filtering system.”

Thompson says that filtering process includes asking students to outline what their project is, how far along it is, and if they have mentors. “We’re looking for the ‘beyond idea’ stage,” Thompson adds. “Maybe they have a prototype or customers. And we do need strong, committed founders.” Thompson says they ask for startup mentors so they can vet the companies and gauge how serious they are and whether they’ve put money into it. “Seeing skin in the game is helpful.”

The clinic works on a semester-by-semester basis, and approximately 10 student ventures are accepted each semester depending on what’s left hanging on the docket from the previous semester. The law students come after they’ve taken a course that specializes in the needs of entrepreneurial clients. The law students help with the heavy lifting, and then Stasa or one of his fellow attorneys look the work over and advise changes, if needed. At the end, the law students hand the work off to Brooks Kushman. “We become responsible for it and end up filing the paperwork,” Stasa explains.

Since the clinic began operating in January 2012, it has gotten over 100 applications from student startups. One of its clients, Fetchnotes, went on to a TechStars Boston residency. MyFab5 and Pico Spray are other clients. “We’ve had some success stories along the way and I expect, as time goes on, we’ll have more,” Thompson says.

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