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Incubators, accelerators, and clinics: How law students and new lawyers can work with start-ups

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Startups

New lawyers and law students who have an interest in working with start-ups should get involved in the entrepreneurship community early. They can not only become important members of the entrepreneurship ecosystem but can also begin to develop critical skills and networks through incubators, accelerator programs, and clinics. 

There are more opportunities and resources to entrepreneurs in many metropolitan areas because of the significant growth of these communities over the past several years. For example, in the Chicagoland community there are several incubators, accelerator programs, and other innovation hubs for entrepreneurs that help create a vibrant community.

  • Incubators are generally programs that provide workspace, mentoring, events and a place for entrepreneurs to collaborate.  
  • Start-up accelerators, which sometimes operate out of incubator spaces, typically run for a set term (often 9-12 weeks) and some, including Techstars and Y Combinator, are both highly selective and quite prestigious for the start-ups who are accepted. These accelerators provide intense mentorship, sometimes funding and often end in a pitch event or demo day in front of potential investors and other participants in the start-up space.  

These programs and communities are not just great for entrepreneurs, but also provide meaningful opportunities for law students and new lawyers to get involved and meet and work with start-ups, whether on a pro bono basis or otherwise. Building relationships and learning how to contribute to a professional community are critical for successful lawyers and these communities give new lawyers the opportunity to develop and hone these important skills. 

By working with start-ups through clinics like the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center (DPELC), law students are exposed to entrepreneurs directly and get to experience their passion and creative thinking first-hand while developing important legal skills. For example, DPELC encourages law students to be part of that entrepreneurship community while still in school. Through the DPELC, 2nd- and 3rd-year law students work with start-ups and social entrepreneurs in the Chicagoland area and on the West Coast to advise and assist with entity selection and formation, intellectual property protection, and contract drafting, among other things.

In particular, the DPELC has represented many successful companies over the past two decades. One former client, Paladin, is a justice tech company whose mission is to increase access to justice by helping legal teams run more efficient pro bono programs. Paladin works with law firms, in-house corporate teams, and bar associations to increase pro bono engagement and decrease program administration.  

Beyond client representation, the DPELC provides office hours and workshops at Chicagoland entrepreneurial hubs including 1871, MATTER, 2112, Techstars, and the Chicago Urban League on topics such as trademark protection, classifying workers and creating founders’ agreements. Cultivating strong relationships with these organizations not only creates compelling educational opportunities for DPELC students, but can also serve as a business development resource to practicing lawyers and law firms.  

In sum, the entrepreneurship communities provide new lawyers and law students with the opportunity to develop critical skills and networks. The best way to get to work with start-ups is to actually meet them, so becoming part of the community is essential. Get out there and learn about the challenges and the wide-range of legal issues facing start-ups.

By working with programs or clinics within these communities, new lawyers and law students can develop the drafting, client counseling and management skills necessary to succeed as attorneys. 

Esther Barron Esther Barron is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. In the clinical program, she works with students to represent startups and social entrepreneurs in a variety of transactional matters. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Coleman Foundation.