Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic Provides Valuable Legal Services to St. Louis Startups, Nonprofits

As St. Louis’s startup scene rapidly expands, the Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property (EIP) Clinic at Washington University School of Law is poised to offer valuable and unique legal services to budding business owners in the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“St. Louis is a hotbed of the entrepreneurial process, and our clinic is an integral supporter of that network,” says Geetha Rao Sant, lecturer in law and EIP Clinic co-director.

The EIP Clinic provides high-quality legal services to those who might not otherwise have access to those services, or who lack the financial resources to pay for them. The clinic also offers enriching academic opportunities and hands-on training to law students who work with clients on a full range of entrepreneurial and intellectual property (IP) matters. These include helping clients with establishing the right type of business entity, branding for new businesses, contract drafting and reviewing, board of director and governance training, various tax matters, trademarking, and copyright services to help clients grow their ventures and protect their IP materials. Additionally, since nonprofits and for-profits are constantly evolving, the clinic serves as a valuable resource to assist organizational leaders with navigating changes and building a successful future.

Jim Brasunas, executive director of ITEN (www.itenstl.org), an EIP Clinic client, has worked with the clinic to assist ITEN’s network of entrepreneurs. “ITEN’s engagement with the EIP Clinic has been instrumental in clarifying our organization’s development path alternatives for our future evolution,” Brasunas says. “Geetha and her team have been on top of things since the beginning, and they are very responsive, clear, and concise in their evaluation and recommendations.”

ITEN is currently working with the clinic on a new program to provide sorely-needed legal support for tech startups. “Very early-stage tech startups often have little understanding of the key issues of company formation, and how their decisions will directly impact their chances of success,” Brasunas says. “Working together, ITEN and the EIP Clinic will enable a much more effective and promising beginning for many startup ventures and thereby increase the likelihood of many more successful and exciting ventures in the region.” 

While historically EIP Clinic clients have been nonprofit organizations, the clinic recently expanded to include for-profit startups and small entrepreneurs. The client base now includes all nonprofits and both for-profits with less than $50,000 in annual revenue and for-profits with up to $150,000 in annual revenue that also have a social enterprise or community development component. 

For Chris Miller, founder of The Mission Center L3C, the EIP Clinic’s assistance has been invaluable. The Mission Center L3C is a think-tank for social entrepreneurs who are passionate about finding innovative solutions to the nation’s social problems. “Words can’t describe the value that the EIP Clinic and its leadership have provided, not only to the social entrepreneurs we serve throughout the region, but also to The Mission Center L3C and its family of social enterprises directly,” Miller says.

“The combination of intellectual property and venture formation with specific expertise in social enterprises, all under one roof, is unique,” he continues."The clinic provides an unparalleled opportunity for students and community members to be at the cutting edge of entrepreneurship—be it commercial, social, or hybrid—and the Washington University community should be incredibly proud to have this be part of our innovation ecosystem.”

Clinic Work Prepares Students, Encourages Community Involvement

In addition to providing quality services to clients, law students who work on EIP Clinic matters also gain valuable experience and training that prepare them for their careers after graduation. Sant and EIP Clinic Co-director David Deal, lecturer in law, offer constructive feedback and guidance in a supportive setting, which can be incredibly helpful for students who are engaging in lawyering for the first time.

“As young lawyers, it is important that we find a system of organization and develop strategies to be as productive as possible,” says EIP Clinic student Savina Nikolova, a third-year law student. “It’s great that we can learn and develop these skills in the clinic, under the guidance of the professors, rather than on the job with supervisors who might not be as patient and understanding.”

Students not only gain practical, firsthand knowledge of the legal issues their clients face, but they also learn about client management, communication, and self-confidence. “The biggest take-away for me was gaining confidence in interacting with clients and recognizing that I have the skills to successfully take them through all of these different legal issues,” says EIP Clinic student Michael Small, also a third-year law student.

“Once you have all of these successes, you gain real confidence, which is especially valuable for when you move on to a less structured and supervised setting,” he continues. “The clinic definitely provides a maturation period that students wouldn’t get from their classes and eliminates any bad habits they might have when practicing law, while also building on their strengths.”

Clinic students often are motivated to become more deeply involved with organizations in the St. Louis community. For example, EIP Clinic students and faculty recently toured the facilities for one of the clinic’s clients, The Little Bit Foundation, which helps to empower and positively impact the lives of disadvantaged school children. After the tour, the EIP Clinic co-directors and students volunteered at one of the foundation’s participating schools, and saw firsthand how their work on behalf of the clients impacts the community as a whole.

For EIP Clinic student Matthew Cin, that is what makes his clinic experience so motivating. “I love knowing that my work is helping people achieve their dreams and reach their goals,” he says. When drafting contracts or presenting to boards of directors, Cin adds that he is often motivated by the larger picture and scope of his clients’ work. “It’s not just about the contract,” he notes, “but more about the implication of what the clients will do once they have a solid foundation on which to grow their organization."

By Lindsey Forsythe and Timothy J. Fox, Spring 2014