Free legal advice yields valuable benefits to startups, state

November 12, 2015 By David Tenenbaum

As Abraham Lincoln said: “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.”

But many budding entrepreneurs don’t have the resources to buy that stock in trade. At the same time, many law students are eager to gain experience in the world of business startups.

To meet those needs, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School established the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic in 2009, offering free legal advice to entrepreneurs throughout Wisconsin.

Photo: Anne Smith

Anne Smith

Many of the clients advised by the clinic’s students have moved on to big things. “Badger Bites,” for example, was the predecessor of EatStreet. One of the state’s fastest-growing startups, EatStreet provides online ordering for delivery at thousands of restaurants.

The clinic has three goals, says director Anne Smith, an assistant clinical professor of law. “We provide a challenging academic experience for students, a quality work product for the client and an economic benefit for the state.”

As many as 80 second- and third-year law students apply each year for 15 to 20 positions, Smith says. “Most of the students are interested in business law, but some are not sure what they want to do and are intrigued by business law and want client experience.”

Jennifer Carter, who spent a year at the clinic, saw it as “a nice change from the school day. You actually get to do real work for clients, and I learned a lot.” One former client, Josh Medow, a neuro-intensive care specialist at UW Hospital and Clinics, is developing software to guide care in ICUs. After graduating, Carter joined Medow’s company, iV Medical Dynamics, where she does “pretty much everything that is not programming or the medical side. I handle all the business, the investing, hiring — a different thing every day.”

At the L&E Clinic, Carter says, she “learned a lot about how small businesses work, the technical skills I would need, the whole idea of entrepreneurship and the lean startup methodology we use.”

Photo: Jared Linzmeier with coffee roasters

Jared Linzmeier returned from the West Coast to open a coffee wholesaler near Amherst Junction, Wisconsin. The L&E clinic helped him register a trademark for his brand, Ruby Coffee, and his slogan, “Colorful Coffees.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jared Linzmeier

The clinic works on contracts, corporate structure, patents and trademarks, but shies away from disputes and litigation, says Smith. All work is overseen by staff who are licensed attorneys. When necessary, the student and the supervising attorney can reach out for further advice and counsel to members of the clinic advisory committee, a group of Wisconsin attorneys who regularly work with startups.

When Jared Linzmeier returned from the West Coast to open a boutique coffee wholesaler near Amherst Junction, the clinic helped him register a trademark for his brand, Ruby Coffee, and his slogan, “Colorful Coffees.” “The trademark website is a pain to navigate, and it was hard to find the time to do that when I was trying to do everything else,” Linzmeier says. “The L&E Clinic did most of the input, and that saved money.”

Eighteen months after it started roasting, Ruby has three full-time employees and one part-timer, and has shipped to more than 30 states.

Photo: Patient in VibeTech chair

A patient who suffered a series of falls is seated in a VibeTech chair, a physical therapy device that builds muscle tone and strength in the frail elderly, at Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee.

Photo: VibeTech, Inc.

The clinic provided specialized legal advice on Food and Drug Administration approval to Jeff Leismer, who invented a physical therapy chair that builds muscle tone and strength in the frail elderly. The chair, made by VibeTech, Inc., Leismer’s Sheboygan startup, is stable and accessible to patients with extremely limited mobility. In treatments lasting just 10 minutes, its vibration provides enough stimulation to reduce pain and improve muscle strength and function.

To deal with specialized medical device issues, the clinic brought in a volunteer FDA specialist from Foley & Lardner’s Washington, D.C., office. “The clinic helped us develop a cost-effective FDA plan to figure out which claims to make during our initial product launch,” Leismer says, “and we are already acting on the plan to file appropriate, research-backed paperwork to make additional claims. The clinic has incredible people and a great process.”

“We provide a challenging academic experience for students, a quality work product for the client and an economic benefit for the state.”

Anne Smith

Clinic advisory committee member Joseph Boucher, of Neider & Boucher in Madison, sees an essential economic development role for the clinic. “We expose students to businesspeople, and to all the trials and tribulations that are a standard part of starting a business.”

Advisory committee members periodically meet as needed with the businessperson and the student to ask questions, look at the paperwork and give big-picture advice, Boucher says. “It’s a hands-on process. Advisors have two interactions: as mentor and as the lawyer supervising the interaction.”

The clinic’s economic impact is evident in the results of a recent survey indicating that 75 percent of clients are still in business, 22 percent have revenue in excess of $100,000 and 5 percent employ five or more people. Former clients include local names like Fetch Rewards, Abodo and SmartUQ, and other Wisconsin businesses like Board Game Trader and Senior Driver Resources.

Success is also reflected in a change in attitude among the law students, Boucher says. “Do they embrace the mentality of being an entrepreneur, or of being an entrepreneurial lawyer? How much have they learned from the success or failure of their clients? These young law students are learning about entrepreneurship along with their clients. Both sides win, and the state wins as well.”