Nurturing an Entrepreneurial Spirit in Michigan Law Students
By John Masson
Erik Gordon, director of the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law (ZEAL) Program and a Professor from Practice, wants his students to gain three main things from Michigan Law's unique program in entrepreneurship and law: knowledge, a skill set, and—most important—a mindset.
"We can boil it down to just a few broad concepts," said Prof. Gordon, of nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit in Michigan Law graduates. He should know; an entrepreneur himself, Prof. Gordon comes to his new full-time position leading the Law School's recently established ZEAL Program from Michigan's top-ranked Stephen M. Ross School of Business, where he was a clinical professor and associate director of the Zell Lurie Institute.
The ZEAL Program was established last year with a $5 million seed gift from Sam Zell, the Chicago-based entrepreneur who earned undergraduate and law degrees at Michigan. The ZEAL Program has two components: 1) a new clinic that offers free legal advice to the growing number of student entrepreneurs across U-M's Ann Arbor campus, and 2) new Law School coursework to train law students to better serve start-ups and existing large-scale entrepreneurial businesses. The dual approach—in combination with the wide variety of entrepreneurial opportunities across campus and U-M's top-ranked schools of business, engineering, and medicine—makes the program unique.
"Erik's background as an entrepreneur, a teacher, and a lawyer provide the ZEAL Program with comprehensive expertise," said Michigan Law Dean Evan Caminker. "His experience in all three facets of his career will provide valuable perspective as we shape course offerings and guide the program into the future."
In addition to directing the ZEAL Program, Prof. Gordon also joins the ranks of the Law School's professors from practice. So he has some definite ideas about how to make lawyers more valuable to entrepreneurial businesses.
"Many entrepreneurs find lawyers to be, at best, costly nuisances they try to avoid," Prof. Gordon said. "At Michigan Law, we're going to turn out law school graduates whom entrepreneurs seek out, as well as graduates who start their own companies. That's where the knowledge, skill set, and mindset goals come into play."
"We need to develop graduates who understand and appreciate risk the way entrepreneurs do, rather than fear risk the way lawyers do," he added. "If we accomplish that alone, our graduates are going to be shining stars in the world of business."
With that in mind, Prof. Gordon plans (naturally) an entrepreneurial approach to the task. "We're going to try things and adjust, as necessary," he said. The first order of business is to expose law students, early in their law school experience, to what Prof. Gordon calls "true, hard-core entrepreneurship."
"We have to get them early, while they are still learning what law school can be about," Prof. Gordon said. "We want to nourish the entrepreneurial cells in their brains and get them to grow. We want them to see risk, and say to themselves, 'What's the opportunity here?' An entrepreneur looks at a situation and says, 'This is scaring away nine out of 10 people. Well, good. The field is less crowded for me.'"
Although 1Ls are fully occupied with doctrinal classes, making extracurricular activities available for those interested in entrepreneurship will help combat the tendency some law students have to be risk averse in their approach to problem solving.
"We'll have seminars, workshops, mixers with our students, together with business and engineering students and other students on campus who are doing entrepreneurial things. Our students, instead of being isolated in the wonderful beauty of the Law Quad, will spend time with people who will later become their clients, their customers, or their business partners," Prof. Gordon said. "We'll cover entrepreneurship in a broad sense, including startups, venture finance, private equity, real estate, and entrepreneurial turnarounds. Our students will self-select. We'll advertise what we're doing, and students who are interested will show up. Those who do will learn about the business and law of entrepreneurship and about how it actually is practiced in the real world. Practice skills will be key."
Additionally, the ZEAL Program's clinic—which last year was the clinic law students sought most—will continue matching campus entrepreneurs with student lawyers who, under the direction of law faculty, will help those entrepreneurs establish the right type of business organization, and sort out who owns what as part of the new entity.
"We'll help student entrepreneurs get started right by helping them set up their business organization, determine who gets how much ownership, and what happens when something changes," Prof. Gordon said.
But the clinic is only one part of the ZEAL story, Prof. Gordon said. Equally important is Michigan Law's potential to help shape the way law is taught both here and around the country.
"Our Law School is seizing an opportunity to lead in developing an additional pedagogic program. This is a dramatic change in what law school can mean," Prof. Gordon said. "I think a lot of our alumni wish we had had something like this when they were in school. I do. So this is also a tremendous opportunity for our alumni who have led entrepreneurial lives to get deeply involved with the school and our students again by sharing their skill sets and their life experiences."