Thousands of law students are heading back to school in the upcoming weeks, their hornbooks and Blue Books in tow. But these Ls 1-3 are facing a law school landscape that’s increasingly in flux. More than ever before, schools are reimagining what a legal education should look like, supplementing the traditional Socratic method with additional opportunities for experiential learning.
On this last front, the University of California, Hastings College of the Law is leading the way in a new type of experiential legal education: the Startup Legal Garage. The school’s Startup Legal Garage program pairs law students with outside attorneys to complete legal work for startup businesses. That real-world legal work is coupled with complementary doctrinal and skills courses at the school, where students bring versions of their legal work, sanitized to remove any confidential or privileged information, into the classroom to, as the school puts it, “bring the teaching of legal doctrine alive.”
Alice Amritage, Director of the Startup Legal Garage
During the year-long program, students work with businesses and attorneys on deliverables such as patent landscape analysis, trademark registration, corporate formation, vendor and customer contracts, privacy policies and terms of service, and more. “We ask all of the students if they have a particular interest in an industry or focus,” Alice Armitage, director of the program and associate professor in charge of the field work component, told Logikcull in a recent interview. “We do our best to be legal matchmakers.” With over more than 60 students, 60 participating attorneys, and 60 companies, that’s a significant amount of matchmaking.
The Startup Legal Garage operates along two tracks, one focused on biotech companies and one on young companies with a tech component—the common denominator being that all participants are early stage startups.
“We joke that these companies aren’t the wet-napkin stage,” Armitage says. “The napkin they got the idea off from the bar has dried.” These young companies, which must apply and be vetted, have shown that they’re “committed to what they’re doing—they’ve really thought through some of it,” she explains. That's when the law students come in.
Getting Pushed Out of the Nest
While many schools have expanded their clinical programs in recent years, in an attempt to provide more hands-on, “practice-ready” learning opportunities, the Startup Legal Garage is different. It is, first, not a clinic. Rather than providing legal services through the law school, under the guidance of an attorney professor as in a clinic, the Hastings students work directly with attorneys who in turn are paired with startups as clients.
“It’s a different experience working for a practicing attorney,” according Armitage. Because the attorney-client privilege doesn’t run to the law school, “none of the professors can get involved beyond setting up the projects and getting students started.” The school covers legal issues and processes, “but we don’t get involved in reviewing the students’ work.”
“We’re actually pushing the students out of the nest,” Armitage says.
Getting “pushed out of the nest” can be a very valuable experience. “When I got out of law school,” Armitage, a Yale Law grad, explains, “the law firms all knew we knew nothing and that’s a part of being a first-year or second-year associate.” That willingness to train new attorneys on the job has waned in recent years, so that today “you’re supposed to hit the ground running.” A program like the Startup Legal Garage allows students “to taste that while still being here in a little bit of safety.”
“Honestly, students tell us all the time that this was the most valuable thing” they did in law school, Armitage says.
The program can also be a valuable learning experience for the startup clients as well. Startup culture is often characterized by a desire to “move fast and break things,” as Facebook once put it. “Sit down and consult an attorney” doesn’t always meld with that zeitgeist. That “non-permissional” approach, Armitage says, can lead to a “misconception among entrepreneurs” that attorneys are only needed when there is legal trouble.
“One of the things that our students actually do with the founders is teach them the value of having someone to ask these basic questions and help them figure it out,” she explains. “It makes the founders really think through questions that could end up being the end of the company,” if they’re not addressed early on, Armitage says—with the added benefit of making them more attractive to investors. “No investor will give you a lot of money if you haven’t figure these things out yet,” she adds.
With several years under its belt, the program is now starting to get alumni returning, as both attorneys and clients. Former student participants are coming back as partnering attorneys, bringing their firms with them. “We’ve also had a couple students that have gone out and founded startups and then come back as founders,” including a recent startup that uses algorithms to optimize the delivery of leftover food from businesses to the homeless.
Seeing the Future of Tech—And Legal Education?
The program also provides law students an on-the-ground perspective of the latest startup trends. A few years ago, sharing economy and social networking apps dominated the startup clients in the program. “One semester, we had three real estate apps,” Armitage mentions. “I don’t know if that worked out so well. We’ve never seen that again.”
Last year, many of the corporate start ups focused on drones and artificial intelligence. This year, virtual reality companies are prevalent. On the biotech side, take-home medical devices were once popular. They've since been replaced by customized drug formulas and delivery. “I think that’s why some of the lawyers like to work with us,” Armitage says. “They like to see what the cutting edge companies are doing.”
But is the program a model for transforming legal education outside of Hastings? That’s a more complicated question. Such programs come with logistical challenges. “You have to be out in the startup community, judging stiff competition and keeping in touch with incubators. We’re also out there promoting ourselves in the startup world,” Armitage says. The program's leaders, Armitage and her colleague Drew Amerson, are drawn to those tasks because “both of us very much like running our own businesses,” says Armitage, who has founded two startups, in addition to having a background in Big Law, government work, and academia. But she recognizes that it may be hard for law schools “to find somebody willing to do that.”
Nonetheless a program like the Startup Legal Garage allows law schools to facilitate experiential learning at a level that is hard to achieve other settings, such as classrooms or clinics. Because they require the direct oversight of an attorney, for example, clinics are often limited to a handful of students. The Hastings program, however, is much more scalable—the Startup Legal Garage has grown from a handful of students to more than 60, with additional students joining from other California law schools. “A lot more students can participate in what we can do,” according to Armitage. The approach is “cost-effective, bottom line.” And, should other schools find successful “matchmakers” like Armitage and her partners, Hastings’ model could move out of the garage and into schools throughout the country.