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By John Masson
A rare program in entrepreneurship and law launching this fall at the Law School will steep student lawyers in the arts of entrepreneurial businesses and also lead to groundbreaking entrepreneurial opportunities for students University-wide.
The Zell Entrepreneurship and Law (ZEAL) Program establishes a clinic to offer free legal advice to Michigan's burgeoning number of student entrepreneurs, while simultaneously boosting the Law School's curriculum to train law students to better serve both start-up and existing entrepreneurial businesses. This dual approach, combined with the depth and scope of resources involved across the full spectrum of the University, makes the ZEAL program unique.
Together the two parts of the program will encourage law students to offer legal advice to—and ideally, to join forces with—the growing number of student enterprises bubbling up as a result of U-M's campus-wide culture of entrepreneurship.
The program has broad implications for students and the economy. Small businesses are the leading driver of job growth in the United States, creating 64 percent of new jobs in the country. There are roughly 29.6 million small businesses in the country, and approximately 627,000 are started every year.
"The University has created an entrepreneurial ecosystem across this campus that is exciting and distinctive," said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. "Whether in classes, business plan competitions, or incubators, students have an opportunity to bring a good business idea to life. These new Law School offerings add an important new dimension to support student innovation."
Sam Zell, '66, the Chicago-based entrepreneur who earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Michigan, is seeding ZEAL with a $5 million gift. Zell founded an apartment management and investment company while attending the University.
"My goal with entrepreneurial endeavors at the University has always been to create cross-pollination across multiple disciplines," Zell said. "We've got top schools in law, engineering, business, and medicine. That's an entrepreneurial jackpot just waiting to be cashed in."
ZEAL is the newest in a series of University initiatives geared toward business development, including the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business (ZLI); the Center for Entrepreneurship within the School of Engineering; a unique new professional master's degree in entrepreneurship created by the College of Engineering and the Ross School; the Michigan Venture Center; student-run programs like the Wolverine Venture Fund; and a variety of competitions and grant programs that encourage student start-ups. Overall, more than 5,000 students across campus participated in an entrepreneurial activity last year.
"What we're trying to do at Michigan is something no other top school has done: truly connecting and coordinating entrepreneurial efforts across the entire campus to maximize opportunities for all students," said Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of aerospace engineering and the associate dean for entrepreneurial programs in the College of Engineering. "That's why the Law School's new program is so exciting. This kind of connectedness across disciplines makes U-M truly unique among peers."
The ZEAL program's dual approach to entrepreneurial education— the clinic, together with several new courses tailored for the entrepreneurial lawyer, for businesses large and small—is at the heart of the school's philosophy of joining the practical with the purely academic, said Law School Dean Evan Caminker.
"We are preparing our law students with a specialized skill set that will enable them to serve the small business community through entrepreneurial start-ups," Caminker said. "At the same time, we can encourage up-and-coming entrepreneurs by helping them get started and grow."
Significantly, the approach also benefits the largest number of students from across all disciplines and schools on the Ann Arbor campus.
"While our law students have huge interest in business law courses, there's an even larger, unmet need for legal advice among campus entrepreneurs," Caminker said.
The clinical aspect of ZEAL will deploy student-attorneys, supervised by faculty members, to help founders of promising student ventures iron out the business formation, trademark, finance, patent, regulatory, and other issues that can complicate the establishment of any entrepreneurial business.
The program will support such existing initiatives as the ZLI, which was cofounded by Zell in 1999 and has granted more than $2.3 million in support of start-ups for graduate students and undergraduates alike. Tim Faley, ZLI's managing director, said the rest of the University community will be grateful for Law School help.
"We know the Law School is going to be a great partner," Faley said. "All of Michigan's entrepreneurial programs are looking for legal counsel. And law students are saying much the same thing—that they'd love to learn how these deals go down."
"This kind of relationship with the Law School will be really valuable for both groups, in terms of giving the law students insight into the entrepreneurial process and giving other students insight into the legal issues surrounding formation of a new business," said Mike Johnson, a 2011 MD/MBA graduate now working as a research fellow at U-M's Medical Innovation Center.
"It's a good time at the University to have these groups come together in a more formal way," added Johnson, who was managing director of the Wolverine Venture Fund last year. "There will be lots of work, and it will be a fruitful experience for everyone."
That view was echoed by Michigan Law adjunct professor Barrie Loeks, '79, who is helping organize ZEAL. She said program designers came up with about a dozen new courses tailored to entrepreneurial-minded student lawyers.
"Working with entrepreneurial businesses requires a different skill set and a different approach than working with larger, established businesses," Loeks said. "With most of the nation's job growth coming from entrepreneurial businesses, we need to better prepare our law students to provide strategic legal guidance to those businesses."
The program will do that, while also supporting such existing initiatives as the ZLI. "We're coming up with the next generation of solutions right here, right now, on this campus, in every important field," said Loeks, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees at U-M. "Put together our business students, our med students, our engineering students, and our law students, and watch out. They'll change the world. But we need to put them together. We need to help them."
Loeks, whose background is both entrepreneurial and corporate, founded with husband Jim Loeks the Michigan-based Star Theatres. Later she became co-CEO of Sony's 250-location Loews Theatres—a position that made her the highest-ranking woman in the Sony corporate empire.
Long active in an advisory capacity with her alma mater, Loeks hopes ZEAL, in which she'll continue to have an active role, will pull together various strands of entrepreneurship across campus in order to create a critical mass of creative business thought. Along the way, she hopes entrepreneurs' somewhat jaded ideas about lawyers will change.
"Entrepreneurs usually look at lawyers as a necessary evil—they're expensive, and they're considered obstacles," Loeks said. "But any successful entrepreneur knows that a collaboration with a good lawyer who understands the business can make you enormously more successful."
More information about University entrepreneurial efforts is available at the Innovate site.
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