Training Lawyers For The Startup World

Plymouth Street

The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) has a location in Dumbo, Brooklyn, a hot spot for tech.

“Take any answer I give you with a grain of salt, because we’re building the plane while we’re flying it,” says Dean Nicholas Allard of Brooklyn Law School of the institution’s latest gamble. On Nov. 14, Brooklyn Law launched the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) with the goal of preparing students to work with startups—and to become a bit more entrepreneurial themselves. “A traditional lawyer wants all the answers before they open their umbrella, put their raincoat on and go outside,” Allard says. “We’re being confident and careful, but we’re also moving ahead and addressing developments as they go.”

The launch took up an entire day. It included a tour of the new sites—one in Downtown Brooklyn, one in Dumbo—demonstrations of several clinics, and a panel recent graduates  who spoke about their entrepreneurial projects. “The crowd was packed,” Allard says enthusiastically. “They were hanging from the rafters. We had two floors that were completely filled with people watching the same launch program.”

And why not? With law schools struggling to place their students in meaningful jobs, the Brooklyn launch is one answer to the crisis. It’s an attempt to connect legal education directly to a hot growth area of the economy and help make newly minted law school grads immediately desirable to fast-growing employers.

Location is especially crucial to the center’s mission. For one, the sites will be right in the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, New York’s answer to Silicon Valley. (“Silicon Valley is so yesterday,” Allard quips.) The Brooklyn Tech Triangle Coalition estimates that this area could contain 10% to 15% of New York City’s tech jobs by 2015.

But unlike many other law school centers, CUBE won’t just prepare lawyers to work with the creators of the next big apps. “The same phenomenon of what happened on the West Coast in online businesses is now happening in Brooklyn with respect to new business generation across the board,” Allard says. According to him, 19,000 new businesses sprung up in Brooklyn just last year—“more than any other community in the United States,” he says.

To make the most of the borough’s eclectic environment, CUBE intends to prepare students for all kinds of establishments: tech companies, green energy startups, restaurants, and more. “All of those things, they seem very different—you know, creative arts, fashion, film, food, energy,” Allard says. But he points out that all startups’ legal needs are basically the same. They need someone who has what it takes “to understand your legal regulatory terrain, to organize in the way that’s most advantageous to address your intellectual property and tax needs,” he explains. “If you don’t have a good lawyer who knows how to make new business possible, you’re going to have a much tougher time of succeeding.” 

LAWYERS THAT SAY “WHY NOT?”

Historically, startups haven’t been able to afford lawyers. Getting one was pretty much the last thing anyone would think of. With CUBE, Allard is betting that’ll change. “The role that a lawyer plays is helping a new business at the takeoff, not just the crash,” he says.

In fact, he argues that lawyers are essential for creating fruitful entrepreneurial environments. “Lawyers are actually clearing away legal underbrush and often establishing new legal regimes that are favorable to the generation of new businesses,” Allard says. “It’s a different approach than maybe people might think on lawyers and the practice of law. It takes a different kind of lawyer—it’s a lawyer who not only knows how to say no but they instead will say, ‘Here’s how’ or ‘why not?’” 

Still, law and entrepreneurship are a bit of an odd couple. “Lawyers and law firms are very conservative by nature,” says Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law. “They’re smart people who wanted a guaranteed rate of return. Entrepreneurs are not.” At least, that’s the dichotomy that has always existed: extreme adherence to tradition versus readiness to tear down all order. “These generations of lawyers are somewhere between those two extremes,” he says.

Askin would know, because he’s been a part of this burgeoning movement for a while. An Internet law expert, Askin served on President Barack Obama’s tech task force when he was running for office in 2008. “It used to be my students would go to these [tech events], and they felt like wallflowers,” Askin says. “They weren’t part of the community. They didn’t think like them.” He pauses for a moment. “Now, we are part of that,” he continues seriously. “The hacker ethos, the entrepreneur spirit is rubbing off on law students. And that’s in no small part because we live in Brooklyn.”

Being a lawyer for entrepreneurs is a far cry from working at a big firm. Taking a firm job means prestige and financial security (and mountains of grunt work, more often than not). If nothing else, it’s stable. On the other hand, working for a startup could result in a lot of different outcomes. “Will [graduates] make as much money on the front end? No, probably not,” Askin says. “Is there potential to make a lot more money on the back end? Yes.”

Plus, Allard claims there’s a huge demand for lawyers who are willing to work with new businesses, even while so many legal jobs ebb away. “It may mean that in the future, there’s fewer people who are kind of very comfortable with business as usual and we’ll get more people applying who can embrace and feel exhilarated by change,” Allard says. “So what I’m saying is that lawyers are going to be sexier in the 21st century than ever.”

The fear is that if the risks don’t pay off, graduates will still be stuck with loans—and they’ll be sexy in the 1990s hobo-chic sense.