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Thursday, April 12, 2012

New Innovation Law Clinics at UC Hastings

This fall marks the formal debut of four new Innovation Law Clinics, designed to give UC Hastings students direct transactional and intellectual property experience in a real-world context, and just maybe find the next new thing.

“Our students are working with very young, early-stage entrepreneurs,” said Professor Robin Feldman, director of the LAB Project. “Imagine grad students with a dream for a new computer, or a new drug delivery system. They each believe they have the next greatest idea.”

Two clinics soft-launched as pilot projects this year. Nine students working with the UC Hastings LAB Project, the UCSF technology transfer office, and the “Startup in a Box” program with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) helped budding biotech innovators develop their ideas and trouble-shoot legal issues.

Two additional clinics, focused on technology startups, small businesses and social enterprises, come online in Fall 2012. Each is yearlong, and open to 3Ls. By using outside attorneys from local technology law firms, Hastings will be able to offer clinic slots to 50 to 60 students over time, and still meet supervision guidelines.

Traditional legal education focuses on case law and litigation. But some 40% of law is transactional. “These clinics provide relevant, practical experience, with a classroom component for reflection,” Feldman said.

As with all clinics, students begin with a practicum, learning the underlying doctrines of a transactional practice. UC Hastings students are then paired with business students and innovators from UC Berkeley, UCSF and UC Santa Cruz. Working with inventors and innovators give UC Hastings students a chance to see firsthand how entrepreneurs think and work. Then, in their seminars, they can analyze and brainstorm problems with peers.

In fast-moving sectors, such as biotech, knowledge of the field is vital. Bioscience law, in particular, “is being made on the ground. It’s not in dusty casebooks,” Feldman said.

The start-up focus is natural for UC Hastings, given its proximity to Silicon Valley. “One of the things California does well is innovation,” said Feldman. “And innovation is a key driver of the American economy.”

The program will serve ventures too small or too young to afford traditional legal services. The clinics will also meet the needs of local businesses, including mom-and-pop stores in the Tenderloin. The social enterprise clinic will focus on business that are “doing well by doing good,” such as Tom's shoes, a for-profit that has a companion non-profit that donates a pair of shoes for each pair sold.

California lawmakers recently approved a new corporate form known as a benefit corporation. This means UC Hastings students will be some of the first graduates with practical knowledge about the new structure.

In the clinics, students will help entrepreneurs and small business owners with entity formation, supply contracts, employment contracts, and help spot IP issues.

The problem-solving approach is much more like a traditional business-school approach, Feldman said. And the clinics have attracted students that are very much like the entrepreneurs they work with. “These are excited, engaged, energetic self-starters,” Feldman said of her students. “They are the type of students who want to go out and make something happen.”

The result, she hopes, will be young lawyers are not just business-focused, but think like entrepreneurs think, she said. “We want to teach our students to be partners in enterprise, not just the lawyer in the room.”

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