ANN ARBOR — With the assistance of alumni at area law firms, the University of Michigan Law School has created a legal clinic offering free legal advice to the university’s many startup businesses and would-be entrepreneurs.
The UM Law School Entrepreneurship Clinic is in its third semester of promoting the success of UM’s next generation of spinouts and startups.
Bryce Pilz and Dana Thompson, the two U of M professors spearheading the Entrepreneurship Clinic, said the idea was funded by UM alum and attorney Samuel Zell, for whom UM’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurship is in part named after.
“Basically, the idea developed from the tremendous entrepreneurship movement on campus,” Pilz said, from the TechArb incubator to organizations like MPowered. “Students in engineering and business have just become startup-crazy. Some of it is driven by technology, some of it by the job market not being what it used to be, some of it is driven by the Zuckerberg Effect, where you can see an undergrad could actually create something like Facebook.”
But a startup also has many legal needs and little money.
“Even to engage a solo practitioner can be cost prohibitive, and students did not know where to go,” Pilz said. “An early stage tech company needs legal help with everything except litigation… business formation, what type of entity they should form as, and financing questions to get money for the company. And a big chunk of it is IP (intellectual property) related, making sure they really own the rights to the proprietary technology they have, making sure they protect it, in many cases by filing a provisional patent.”
“Or by filing a trademark on a business name they have,” added Ben Stasa, a UM law school alum and attorney at the intellectual property law firm Brooks Kushman P.C. who assists the clinic.
And Pilz also noted that “on the flip side, in law school, there’s a huge increase in demand for teaching startup law,” and Barrie Lawson Loeks, an entrepreneur, UM law school alum and lecturer at the school, started soliciting law school alums to get money to support the clinic.
What is now known in the law school as ZEAL, for Zell Entrepreneurship And Law, accepts 16 law students each semester, each of whom will be assigned to a startup.
“We receive between 70 and 100 applications for the clinic each semester, so we’re lucky, we can choose from the best of the best business ideas,” Pilz said.
The program began in January 2012, when 12 companies got assistance. That number grew to 16 companies in September 2012 and 22 companies for the semester that just started last month.
Some of UM’s best-known tech spinoffs and startups have taken advantage of the service, including the note-taking service FetchNote to the review service My Fab Five.
Thompson said UM law school would like to grow the program with more startup legal experts from other area law firms.
For more on the program, visit its Web site, www.law.umich.edu/ec, or visit its blog, wolverinestartuplaw.com.