LINCOLN — Masterminding their app was the easy part. For James Verhoeff and Zach Christensen, both 20-year-old entrepreneurs, navigating how to file legal paperwork to turn their idea into an official entity was a different story.
So when the pair heard about the University of Nebraska College of Law's plan to open a clinic that would offer legal advice to entrepreneurs and startups, they jumped and applied to be clients.
“I'm so glad we got on when we did,” said Verhoeff, a student in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science. The app he and Christensen developed, Pickit, offers coupons from Lincoln merchants that, when redeemed, allow for a portion of the sale to go to an organization of the consumer's choosing.
“It almost feels like an unfair advantage,” Verhoeff said.
The Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic is a program staffed by third-year law students that provides free representation and counsel to startup businesses on early-stage legal issues. It's housed in a downstairs office space of UNL's law college and set up to resemble a law firm.
The entrepreneurship clinic is led by assistant clinical law professor Brett Stohs, a Lincoln native and Duke University School of Law graduate who was selected after a national search, and advised by an advisory board of lawyers from around the country led by Omaha attorney Deryl Hamann.
This semester, eight students are working in pairs to assist eight startup companies with issues such as entity formation, founders agreements negotiation, trademark protection, contract drafting and federal regulation counseling. In Nebraska, third-year law students can practice law under the supervision of a lawyer, in this case Stohs.
The client startups are involved in various industries, including technology, fashion and food production. They're based mostly in Lincoln and Omaha, with a couple in greater Nebraska. Others, like the startup by the Raikes School students, are on campus.
The clinic is a win-win for all parties involved, Stohs said. Law students earn six credit hours and get experience applying classwork to real-life business law situations.
Startups get legal advice that could help them avoid making mistakes or help them profit more when they start making money.
“They're trying to put everything they have into their idea,” Stohs said of startups, “and statistics tell us that not all of these startups will survive. We're trying help fill that void.”
Startups' need for advice is catching the attention of experts in law and other fields.
Last year, First National Bank of Omaha, intellectual property law firm Advent IP, business law firm Koley Jessen and accounting firm Lutz & Co. formed the Mastercraft Advisors in the north downtown Mastercraft Building. Recently, Koley Jessen partnered with the Nebraska chapter of the Entrepreneurs' Organization to offer expertise to beginning companies.
Clinics aren't new to the college or law colleges around the country, but this one is different for UNL in that it's the school's first transactional clinic. The school's civil clinic, established in 1975, helps parties litigate or settle disputes, while the entrepreneurship clinic helps parties make business transactions and complete legal business documentation.
Because of its positive nature and the excitement surrounding the world of entrepreneurship in Nebraska, the clinic will serve as a networking opportunity for law students, said law Dean Susan Poser. One of her goals is to better connect law students with the university and community. Long term, she believes the connections students make will help to point them toward a career path.
“We're hoping that some students who are in the clinic might say, 'Hey, I want to be a business lawyer or I might want to open my own business,'” she said. “Lawyers do all kinds of things in business.”
Third-year law student Megan Collins said she isn't sure yet what kind of law or where she'll practice, but the clinic has offered her a glimpse into the possibilities business law can offer.
“This is a pretty perfect practical supplement for business-minded students,” she said of the clinic.
From the client perspective, the response so far has been positive. The clinic has about 10 startups in the queue to be clients next semester, Stohs said.
Law students who are part of the clinic are required to participate in outreach projects. And as part of that, they are speaking about legal issues in classes offered through the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, where students are involved in projects like creating diagnostics systems on complex farm operations and sensing technologies to monitor cropland. The ag program is in the process of connecting its first student entrepreneur with the law clinic.
Tom Field, director of the Engler program, said he views the clinic as an extension of UNL's mission.
“The entrepreneurship clinic really creates a sort of modern, contemporary approach to what land-grant universities are supposed to do, which is serve people,” he said. “We're excited about it.”
In just a handful of weeks, the clinic has helped Verhoeff and Christensen make a list of four things they need to accomplish legally to better establish their business, including drafting a founder's agreement and reviewing a merchant agreement contract.
“If this (company) is successful,” Verhoeff said, “it'll just be the biggest thank you to UNL, mostly because they're encouraging entrepreneurship.”
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