Small Business Clinic Provides Practical Experience to Students while Aiding Local Communities

“Transactional, small business clinics fulfill two critical needs: many small businesses cannot afford high quality legal services, and clinical legal education has historically favored litigation over transactional practice,” explains Hiram E. Chodosh, dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, in regard to the law school’s new Small Business Clinic, a for-credit academic program providing students with hands-on legal experience and public service to local small businesses.  “Our Small Business Clinic is designed to close these two gaps simultaneously by serving our local community in a critical area of economic development and providing significant training in traditionally undertrained practice areas.”

In only in its second year, the Small Business Clinic shows positive results of “closing these two gaps” as students and pro bono attorneys reach out to the local communities to help small, low-income and early stage businesses, many of them minority or women-owned, with their legal needs.  Such needs may range from entity formation to assistance with contract or employment issues. Students enrolled in the clinic perform a “legal audit” of their clients under the supervision of pro bono attorneys and assist with resolving the issues identified if time permits.  In addition, students take a corresponding class taught by Professors Beth Whitsett and Kristin Erickson. The course covers many of the issues encountered in a small business practice, and students learn from a variety of guest speakers who have expertise in areas such as human resources, financing, entity formation, creditors’ rights, and tax.

Deborah Feder, a student participant in the clinic, looked forward to the opportunity to gain hands-on experience by helping a small business owner with real legal issues. Through her placement, she discovered that practicing business law requires more diverse expertise and cross-curricular thinking than she expected. “I didn’t realize how many areas of law would be involved in this clinic. I am getting experience in business organization, trademark law, employment, and contract issues.”

The Small Business Clinic and other clinical and pro bono programs provide valuable experience by taking students out of the classroom and into a practical legal setting. The clinic also provides opportunities for students to explore different and perhaps unfamiliar areas of the law. Another benefit is these programs introduce students to practitioners within their areas of interest, thus establishing a network of contacts for students’ professional development.

During fall semester, the clinic partnered with lawyers at the Salt Lake City law firm of Fabian & Clendenin, which provided six attorney supervisors to oversee clinic students in their placements. Given an average billing rate of approximately $175 per hour, the firm effectively donated a substantial contribution of more than $20,000 of legal services to the community. Peter Billings, president of the firm, explains, “This partnership with S.J. Quinney is a manifestation of our commitment to responsible corporate citizenship and an opportunity for our transactional attorneys to participate in meaningful pro bono service. Generally, there are more pro bono opportunities for litigators than for transactional lawyers. We look forward to our continuing participation with this program.”

As these attorneys monitored and reviewed student’s work, they became more than just the instructors in the law firm setting, but also mentors and role models for the students. “I have learned that there is much that goes into being able to consult with a business client, and I have a long way to go before I have that sort of expertise,” Feder says of her experience observing how her lawyer-supervisor and business client interacted. “On the other hand, I am realizing that even an experienced attorney will not always have the answer right away to every problem that comes up and that’s okay!”

Tim Clark, a lawyer-supervisor and an associate at Fabian and Clendenin, notes the many advantages of pro bono work. “Our firm encourages pro bono by allowing associates to utilize fifty hours of their annual billable requirement for pro bono,” states Clark, “the entrepreneurs are excited about receiving free help and the students are excited about doing some practical work.” More importantly, Clark believes pro bono work creates a positive perspective on the legal profession for the clients. “This experience helps them realize that legal advice is beneficial, and I hope that a few years from now when they may need more help, they will seek it.”