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U Michigan Law School opens free legal clinic for student start-ups

By David Schwartz
Published: January 9th, 2013

The University of Michigan has a new addition in its arsenal of programs designed to support campus commercialization efforts – its law school’s new Entrepreneurship Clinic. “For the student entrepreneurs, this is huge,” said Bryce Pilz, a co-instructor at the clinic, which provides free legal advice and support to start-up companies run by students.

University students, Pilz comments are “doing great things, and they’re extremely active with their start-ups, but there are big mistakes you can make in the early stages if you don’t have someone to help you.”

Sam Zell, the benefactor whose name is already on the business school’s entrepreneurial institute, donated $5 million to help start the clinic as part of the Zell Entrepreneurship and the Law (ZEAL) program. In addition to helping student entrepreneurs, the program and clinic are designed to give law students real-world experience in the start-up sector.

“For the law school students, the clinic consists of two parts, a classroom component and then actually representing their clients,” clinic director Dana Thompson said. “… Most of law school is about taking classes and learning about the theory of corporations or torts or contracts. Then they come to us so we can put everything together and they can actually work with a startup.”

The clinic utilizes the “student practice” rule, which allows law students to represent clients under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The clinic received more than 100 applications for 16 spots in the clinic’s first semester in the spring of 2012. “It’s a great opportunity for us because it’s doing a lot of research and starting from scratch figuring out how to solve things,” third year law student and clinic participant Jeana Buquicchio said.

The clinic has 17 active client companies. Students in the clinic also offer office hours once a week at several locations on campus. Much of the advice dispensed by the law students deals with entity formation and intellectual property rights.

A co-founder of one start-up focused on building a bike sharing service said the help was invaluable. “The experience was terrific. They helped us form our company, and then over the summer Bryce [Pilz] continued to help us with legal matters,” co-founder Keith Porter said. “Now in the fall we’ve just finished up our offering agreement and getting provisional patents filed.”

Pilz said one of his favorite things about the program is that it opens doors and makes connections that would not have otherwise happened. “There’s something magical about getting the smart ambitious business and engineering students in the same room as the smart ambitious law students,” he said. “We’re now getting our students in the same room with them for the first time. The law school used to be very isolated and the whole university can sometimes feel decentralized, but when you get those students together magic seems to happen.”


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