BU, MIT program provides legal advice for entrepreneurs

The MIT dome.
The MIT dome.

Students looking to found a company in Greater Boston can look forward to a packed calendar of events and a multitude of university-sponsored resources to help get their idea off the ground.

At the start of this school year, another joined the list. A collaboration between MIT and Boston University School of Law offers free legal help to would-be entrepreneurs from both schools.

Announced in September, the Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property Clinic is intended to serve as a place where startup founders can seek basic advice about how to register their company or how to distribute ownership to multiple founders. It’s also a place where those who find themselves in advanced legal trouble can seek aid.

The clinic is led by BU professor Eve Brown, with eight third-year law students who serve as advisers to student teams. Any student enrolled at MIT or BU can sign up for a free consultation or drop in for a visit.

“A business class will teach you the fundamentals of what these things are. The clinic will help you get there,” said Brown. Until a company can afford to hire people with experience into the team, the clinic is meant to be a sounding board, advising teams on such things as how to become attractive to investors, whether or how to build up an IP portfolio, or how to get acquired.

Brown previously led a similar clinic for startups at Suffolk University, where the clinic would accept student teams from across the US.

For BU students, the clinic is a chance to train towards a career in entrepreneurial law. “It’s like a medical residency or an apprenticeship. They get the experience of helping clients under my supervision,” Brown said.

Clinics like this one are becoming popular at law schools, matching the interests of law students who are turning to this as a career. Colleges across the country from Washington University in St. Louis to Northwestern, to University of Pennsylvania all have similar programs where college entrepreneurs can consult lawyers-in-training for free.

MIT students have inadvertently found themselves in legal trouble for the very innovation that the university encourages. In a recent case, a student group that threw together a bitcoin mining prototype called “Tidbit”during a hackathon in November 2013 found themselves subpoenaed by New Jersey attorney general’s office. The Electronic Frontier Foundation represented the team for free; the case was settled this May.

“I believe we should provide our student inventors and entrepreneurs with a resource for independent legal advice, singularly devoted to their interests and rights,” MIT president Rafael Reif wrote in an open letter to the community in February 2014. The new law clinic is the first answer to that call. Another program, the Technology and Cyberlaw Clinic, is due to open in 2016.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook