Putting theory into practice
Entrepreneurial Legal Services Clinic complements classroom time
Instead of merely teaching students theory, the UMKC School of Law also prepares students for practice. One way the School of Law accomplishes this is through the Entrepreneurial Legal Services Clinic.
Launched in 2002 with the encouragement and backing of Emeritus Professor of Law Ed Hood, Clinical Law Professor Judith Sharp and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the entrepreneurial clinic provides free assistance to clients who want to start businesses. A credit class in the School of Law, the clinic – located at 4747 Troost Ave. – offers hands-on training for teams of students. They conduct client interviews, do research and writing and explain legal issues.
"For a few hours a day, we become lawyers," said second-year law student Andrew Buser.
While most clients simply need to establish a limited liability company and draft an operating agreement, the student team must nonetheless "marshall the facts," in the words of Sharp, "and distill it down to the salient points, explain the tax implications and what it means to have a partner."
A free "business pre-nup"
For Kansas City, the clinic supplies another piece of the entrepreneurial picture.
Word of mouth convinces some clients to make the initial contact. Others hear of the clinic through Sharp's free monthly talks on limited liability. The clinic's neighbors with an entrepreneurial focus -- the School of Law's Solo and Small Law Firm Incubator, the UMKC Small Business & Technology Development Center, KCSourceLink and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) -- also make referrals.
"When clients first come in for advice," said Sharp, "they may be approaching a partnership the same way they would a romantic relationship: everything is perfect, there are no problems, they will always be able to work out any differences. We are the 'pre-nup.'"
Second-year law student Drew Goodwin said that about half of his clients do not complete the business process, but he regards this as a positive.
Dani Merrick, a faculty advisor and clinical assistant professor, agrees with Goodwin's assessment.
"One of the most important things we do is get them to consider what might happen if there is a disagreement, illness or the death of a partner or a falling out," Merrick said. "It is not at all unusual, when they look at the whole picture, for them to decide against forming a business with a partner."
No need to search for an internship
Clinic experience is different from internships in law firms because faculty structure the clinic experience to educate the students, as well as serve the clients. Students know they need the tools they acquire in the classroom and through scholarship, but they relish the practical legal education: meeting real clients and doing real work. Because many area law firms have curtailed the hiring of summer associates, the clinic is more popular than ever.
Merrick praises the quality of their work.
"I am constantly surprised by the level of need clients have, and the amount of work that goes in to producing the right forms for those clients," Merrick said.
"The clinic closes the divide between theory and application," Goodwin said. "Besides serving as a safety net, with supervising instructors stepping in if necessary, the clinic offers enormous benefits. The first client interview is intimidating, but we have to learn to interact with them and explain things in language they understand -- not our legalese shorthand. The clients are so gracious and grateful for the way we respect them, keep their confidence and make good recommendations."
Merrick calls to mind the feedback clients have contributed, describing an array of cookies, candy, flowers, cards and emails. Some clients make donations, and the Missouri Bar has given in-kind gifts.
Blain Lagergren, a third-year law student, was attracted to UMKC's School of Law by the curriculum and clinic offerings.
"I am really glad I chose to come here to law school. Kansas City offers so many ways to get experience," Lagergren said. "I have been involved with Heart of America Stand Down, an organization that helps homeless vets and provides legal resources. I am really committed to that group."
Aspiring future corporate attorney Buser said, "The UMKC law school has a definite entrepreneurial focus. Professor [Tony] Luppino said the Entrepreneurial clinic is a good learning tool, and he's right. The tax emphasis is great background for me. I have received a lot of help and advice."
How to sign up:
Law students may enroll in the fall or winter semesters. Although students are not enrolled during the summer, potential clients may always submit applications for the fall semester waiting list or attend a free talk about choosing the right entity for a business.For more information, visit http://law.umkc.edu/academics/clinics-entrepreneurial-legal-clinic-services.asp.
Anyone can attend Business 101 talks, which take place at 5 p.m. at 4747 Troost, Rm. 213. Talks will be held on the following dates: June 6, July 11, Aug. 2 and 23 and Sept. 12.
This article is the first in a series of articles focusing on how the "Community is the Classroom".