Why Every LL.M. Student Needs Entrepreneurial Thinking

The stereotype of lawyers as risk-averse nay-sayers is antiquated. Lawyers who can think entrepreneurially are needed by every type of business — prompting law schools to change their offering

At law school, entrepreneurship is de rigueur.

A growing number of students on flagship LL.M. law courses see their fortunes running or advising a small and scrappy startup, rather than a big global law firm.

“We’ve had numerous graduates who have started their own entrepreneurial initiatives, while others are ‘side hustles’ undertaken by students while in law school,” says Professor Erika Buell, director of the law and entrepreneurship program at Duke Law.

Meanwhile, many startup companies want lawyers to be their trusted advisors and recognize that lawyers need to be involved in the business at a different level and in a fundamentally different way.

Prof Buell says: “The understanding of lawyers as risk-averse nay-sayers is tirelessly antiquated. It is the lawyer as advisor and counselor — and problem solver — that is most in demand in the innovation economy.”

How LL.M. programs are embracing entrepreneurship

Law schools around the world are responding to these changes by establishing clinics where would-be lawyers advise early-stage business ventures. Others are adapting content in different ways, bolting coding courses or lawyers onto their LL.M. degrees, for instance.

Additionally, some are offering business plan competitions and “hackathons” that help students to jump-start great business ideas.

At Duke Law, attorneys get hands-on experience representing entrepreneurs, who gain free legal advice on how to commercialize their ideas, in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic. The students can even apply to the clinic themselves to get support with their business incorporation documents.

Duke Law students can also take courses on securing venture capital financing, and modules in innovation at the nearby Fuqua School of Business, which is part of the same Duke University.

“A law school can provide an entrepreneur with legal acumen and good judgment, which is helpful when running a business,” says Prof Buell.

“The law students who are best able to capitalize on our fast-moving economy are those who have intellectual curiosity, embrace technology, think broadly about ethics, stakeholders and the rule of law,” she adds.

For Steven Tapia at Seattle University School of Law, the introduction of entrepreneurial classes is part of a larger movement to keep the curriculum relevant.

However, not every law school is following suit. He explains: “Some adhere to very traditional notions of education; they remain focused on forging very traditional lawyers.”

However, some law schools have begun to offer LL.M. curriculum in privacy, cybersecurity, intellectual property and other topics, in order to help students develop an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. For instance, the University of Colorado at Boulder is now offering an LL.M. specialization in Entrepreneurship and Business Law, which covers business law from a startup’s perspective.

Some LL.M. programs are also integrating practical components, which can help give students a first-hand look at how entrepreneurship works. Cornell Law School’s New York City-based LL.M. in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship, for example, offers a ‘Product Studio’ and a ‘Startup Studio’ – courses that help students develop new products and business ideas, respectively.

Likewise, Seattle University offers the Summer Institute for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an immersive six-week experience. It includes a deep dive into what it is like to be an in-house lawyer at a technology company. It involves site visits to prominent local businesses such as Microsoft and Expedia.

Increased demand for entrepreneurial lawyers

Tapia notes that the explosive growth of companies with “ask for forgiveness not permission” business models has driven up demand for lawyers at companies pioneering disruptive technologies.

“It has become absolutely critical to include lawyers in the set of trusted advisers that run those types of companies,” he says, citing Google, Facebook, Uber, Tesla. “Just ask Travis Kalanick or Mark Zuckerberg what happens if you forge ahead without good legal thinking,” he adds, citing famous tech founders whose businesses have fallen foul of regulators.

Of course, there are basic skills acquired at law school that are important for any businessperson: knowing how to negotiate, mediate and litigate are all important abilities.

Lawyers have become more important to the corporate world as it has become increasingly dependent on intellectual property, new financing methods and understanding the limits of government regulation.

“Unless the founder is self-funding and a one-person shop, knowing secured transactions, licensing, governmental regulation and employment law is essential,” says Tapia.

These skills can also set LL.M. students up for success in entrepreneurial divisions of law firms, which are becoming far more innovative than in the past.

As Tapia says: “Some businesses are no longer willing to pay for a traditional law firm. Creative fee structures and having one layer of staffing are increasingly in demand. 

“But that requires entrepreneurial thinking. A traditional law school education does not teach lawyers how to think like businesspeople. The entrepreneurial movement is trying to change that.”

Duke Law’s Prof Buell adds: “Regardless of whether our students create an actual startup with market traction, they all develop their entrepreneurial mindset and proactively embrace their careers, whether in law or business, in an entrepreneurial way.”

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