Law Clinic Students Counsel Undergraduate Entrepreneurs in Social Innovation Incubator

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Planting a community garden to feed the needy and ease the homeless back into the workforce sounded simple enough. But to pull it off, the UNC undergraduates who came up with the idea for Hope Gardens in Chapel Hill, N.C., needed to make decisions about complex issues such as corporate structure, insurance and liability, and board development. Selected to be part of the Campus Y's Social Innovation Incubator, the Hope Gardens entrepreneurs had access to pro bono advice across campus. At the law school, Thomas Kelley, professor and faculty supervisor of the Community Development Law Clinic, dug in to help.

"It's nice that the law school is finding ways to be involved with innovation, which the chancellor and other University leaders have emphasized," says Kelly.

Come fall, third-year law students in the Community Development Law Clinic will lend their expertise to the four startups chosen to make up the inaugural Social Innovation Incubator, which launched in January. The incubator provides up to $15,000 in seed funding to each startup and steers the student entrepreneurs to professors and student-staffed clinics on campus and some experts off campus for free guidance.

Richard Harrill '98, director of the Campus Y, and Mathilde Verdier, who coordinates the incubator, have been working to formalize the strategic partnerships that connect the student social entrepreneurs with the law school, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kenan-Flagler Business School, the School of Public Health and the computer and public policy departments.

"These schools and entities don't have an excuse to play together very often," Harrill says. "To be programmatically strong, the incubator has to be interdisciplinary. We've tried to make it easier for the entrepreneurs to find the services that these schools and departments can provide."

Kelley envisions that the students staffing the law clinic will conduct presentations on topics useful to nonprofits and for-profits working on social innovations: a business plan structure for nonprofits to avoid unrelated business income tax; best practices for governance boards; the IRS' unpredictable commerciality doctrine; and the pros and cons of nonprofits and for-profits.

"Giving presentations will be a powerful education experience for the law students," Kelley says. "To be able to put on a meaningful presentation, they'll have to know their stuff."

Later on, the startups might become clients of the clinic, and the 3Ls could help the startups draft bylaws, pull together a board and negotiate and draft contracts.

The law school has five legal clinics at present - in addition to the Community Development clinic, students staff clinics pertaining to Civil Legal Assistance, Domestic Violence, Juvenile Justice, and Immigration and Human Rights Policy – and in the fall will open a Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic to help people stuck in the foreclosure crisis, among other financial matters. By working in the clinics, "3Ls learn a lot of important lawyering skills," Kelley says. "They grapple with and get comfortable with the role lawyers play in society and in relation to their clients. It helps 3Ls get ready to represent living, breathing clients when they graduate."

Verdier, thinking innovatively, came up with another advantage the law school's partnership with the Social Innovation Incubator holds for law students.

"Social enterprise is starting to boom," Verdier says. "Law students might want to look into this as a future career opportunity."

-July 9, 2012

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106


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