A Short Pre-History of Santa Clara Law’s Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic

ELC-Logo-300x88In celebration of the fifth anniversary of Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic at Santa Clara University School of Law, it seemed like a good time to organize some of my thoughts about its founding.

I joined the Santa Clara Law faculty in 2006 as the High Tech Law Institute’s faculty director. At the time, the law school had several clinics. However, other than Professor Hammond’s Broadband Regulatory Clinic that submits comments to the FCC or CPUC, none of the clinics remotely addressed high tech law. Instead, high tech students obtained experiential learning through externships, internships, moot courts, and a few courses that offered simulations. A high-tech focused clinic–providing students with the opportunity to provide legal services to real live clients under the supervision of a faculty expert–was an obvious hole in our programmatic offerings…and a top priority on my administrative wish list.

So obvious, in fact, that alumni and other friends-of-the-school would regularly suggest that we should have a clinic for high tech law, especially every time the USPTO publicly solicited schools to participate in their Law School Clinic Certification Program. Those inquiries would inevitably spark an irresolute internal email discussion about our programmatic gap. A few months later, another suggestion would come in and start the discussion anew.

In reality, a high tech law clinic was possible only after we resolved two key issues:

1) The money. I couldn’t imagine any way to raise the money to cover the clinic, so any clinic discussions were theoretical without a law school funding commitment. Around 2010-11, Dean Polden indicated that the law school budget could support three new clinics, which ultimately became the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, the International Human Rights Clinic, and the Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic.

2) The clinics’ scope. Joy Peacock, then the HTLI’s Assistant Director, and I led the effort to respond to Dean Polden’s signals. In March 2011, we put together a discussion document that cataloged 22 (!) different approaches to a clinic that emerged through brainstorming sessions. Eventually, after substantial internal and external discussions, the High Tech Law Institute proposed “a new law clinic providing formation, transactional and counseling services to entrepreneurs with a Santa Clara University connection.” We explained that “we prioritized an entrepreneurs’ legal clinic [over the 21 other options] because of its opportunities for students without a technical background, its ability to support many constituencies throughout the university, and the ability to reliably source appropriate clients.” We started the faculty approval cycle in February 2012 and got faculty approval in October 2012. See the proposal approved by the faculty. In our public announcement of the clinic, I said:

This clinic strengthens our ability to prepare students to be 21st Century Silicon Valley lawyers. The clinic will also create collaboration opportunities with the Business School, the Engineering School and other parts of Santa Clara University, and it will provide more legal resources for entrepreneurs who are helping create new companies—and new jobs—in California. The new Entrepreneur’s Clinic will be a huge win for our students and our community.

Still, we would achieve those wins only if we hired the perfect person to lead the clinic. After a candidate search stretching over several months, we hired Laura Norris as clinic director. See the April 2013 announcement.

Laura was an obvious match for the job; among other advantages, her rich and diverse professional background made her the complete package. Even so, Laura has outperformed our lofty expectations. She got the clinic up-and-running in 6 weeks, increased clinic capacity so that more than twice as many students can take the clinic than we initially anticipated (about 20% of each class now participates in the clinic), built ties to key institutions on campus and throughout the Silicon Valley, and created transformational learning experiences for many students. Laura has rare gifts as a program builder. In just 5 short years, the Entrepreneurs’ Law Clinic–and Laura–have become essential and irreplaceable pillars of the Santa Clara Law community.

It took 2+ years of active development (and 7+ years of planning and ambition) to launch the clinic, but it’s been worth the work and wait. Kudos to Prof. Norris, the other instructors, the clients, the mentors, and especially the students for making the clinic so successful.