Berkeley Law students in the Startup Law Initiative, or SLI, learn the law in action by partnering with Bay Area startups pro bono.
Students in SLI provide otherwise-unaffordable legal guidance to low-income founders, founders of color and female-identifying founders, according to Tiana Wang, a former student fellow and future president of SLI. Each semester, SLI cycles which startup founders receive legal aid from first-year student law fellows supervised by attorneys from SPZ Legal, P.C., a startup law firm in Oakland.
“We make a tangible impact on these founders and that’s really rewarding,” Wang said. “The hands-on work is so important. Learning law in class is one thing, but helping clients and answering questions is really wonderful.”
SLI emulates the kind of work Wang came to law school to perform. In Alaska, where she worked to help small businesses focused on supporting the local ecosystem, she noticed that legal knowledge was in high demand and hard to access.
The effort to provide legal service to those who can’t afford it is also personal — Hannah Krutiansky, a Berkeley Law student who just finished her first year as a student fellow, SLI provides services that could have helped her father, who found it difficult to break into the startup scene as an immigrant.
Through SLI, first-year student fellows conduct research, client intake and interviews, among other tasks, according to a program description.
“It’s cool we get to speak with entrepreneurs directly and hear their goals and ambitions,” Krutiansky said. “This is someone’s baby — they dreamt this (and) they put in their blood, sweat and tears.”
Wang noted the difficulties of turning a new idea into a full time job without sufficient means and resources. She also noted that SLI hosts training sessions on start-up basics and walks new businesses through the different legal issues and processes they may face. Students gain valuable experience while immersed from the “beginning to end” of the incorporation process, according to Wang.
Startup attorney Hannah Porter and her classmate Morgan Kasenchak founded the SLI program to help first-year law students access transactional legal experience. In an email, Porter said she found the limited access of first-year law students to such an experience “very frustrating” when she herself was a first-year.
“I still work in startup law and still love it, so am always happy to see students getting that early exposure to what I think is such a fantastic option for a legal career,” Porter said in an email.
Porter believes the program is popular for the same reason she started it: first-year law students’ classes and pro-bono work are litigation-focused, but many of these students, especially in the Bay Area, already know they want to pursue startup corporate transactional law.
Next year, Wang intends to increase the number of program participants from 18 to 24 and reduce the number of clients from 12 to eight to work with businesses long-term on issues beyond incorporation.
“It’s really special to work with startups and founders because they’re so excited about what they’re creating, and it’s an honor and privilege to get to work with them at this stage of their lives,” Wang said. “It’s really exciting to see them grow.”