Europe lags behind the United States in two seemingly unrelated categories: first, experiential legal education; and second, fostering and sustaining new entrepreneurial ventures. What is less well recognized is that these two concepts are interconnected, and the gap between the United States and Europe in each is narrowing quickly.
The United States has enjoyed a 40-year head start over Europe in experiential legal education, beginning with the social and economic justice clinics pioneered during the 1960s and 1970s to offer pro bono legal support for clients without the resources for private counsel.
These pioneers recognized the mutually virtuous value of providing legal support for underrepresented, vulnerable constituencies, while simultaneously training the next generation of lawyers through real-world practice. (To come clean, I am the progeny of Frank Askin, one of these pioneers, who founded the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic in 1970.)
Relative to Europe, the United States also has operated under clearer business laws and processes, designed to ensure that ventures have the legal structures in place to promote sustainability and growth.
With the explosion in startup entrepreneurship, however, it has become increasingly more difficult for would-be entrepreneurs to obtain the legal support needed to turn ideas into viable businesses. Like the indigent clients of the economic and social justice law clinics, startups often lack the resources to navigate legal obstacles or to battle the more established, deep-pocketed enterprises they hope to disrupt. To fill the gaps in legal services, U.S. law schools have recently responded by extending the concept of clinical legal education to the representation of unfunded, or “bootstrapping,” ventures.
The Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy Clinic, launched in 2008, is one such response to support New York’s exploding startup community while simultaneously training the next generation of lawyers to better understand and service new ventures. The law school’s program has become the de facto counsel to many incubators, co-working spaces and school entrepreneurship programs, whose startups do not yet have the resources to hire private counsel.
WORKING IN ISOLATION
But Brooklyn Law’s program and the other U.S. startup law clinics largely work in isolation. We lack the power and the value of a network and shared experience. We should learn from the startup entrepreneurs with whom we work.
The modern startup community has blossomed through a culture of collaboration, a culture that includes dynamic urban centers where people of diverse backgrounds live and learn in close proximity and collaborative environments. Through the power and value of incubators and co-working spaces cropping up in our burgeoning tech centers, great ideas and great ventures are born.
The United States has paved the way for experiential legal training, but American individualism still underpins much of our legal system and culture. U.S. law schools have typically rewarded the dogged individualist, the non-collaborator. We train law students to beat their adversaries, even to defeat their classmates. We rarely teach collaboration except in our clinics, where student and client success often rests upon effective collaboration.
To best represent startup ventures, a collaborative spirit should become the ethos of the startup lawyer — and of the law schools that breed them.
While serving its immediate surroundings, Brooklyn’s program still stands relatively alone in the U.S. legal education system. It has become, however, an adviser and landing strip for European startup law clinics, as the concept of clinic-based support for new business ventures has resonated in Europe.
On the heels of economic austerity, European law schools have recognized the value of government support and the exponential power of networks. Through a grant from the European Commission, I, with a consortium of 16 European law schools, am helping to launch a European network of startup law clinics with shared knowledge and resources.
This system would be equally powerful in the United States, but has yet to find such collective support. As a consortium, the European law schools are fostering the development of a network of focused support systems for startup ventures, while this concept lags in the United States.
No dynamic system can survive without a strong framework, and Europe is embracing this idea full-force, from education to practice. Europe is adopting the collaborative ethos of the American startup entrepreneur. European lawyers are learning how to think like startups and to represent them better. Within a few years, Europe will have built the legal training network and support structure for its own startup communities.
During the 19th century, European creators lamented that Americans were appropriating their work without adequate compensation. Through the 20th century, the United States was often the world’s pioneer and ideas leader, and we often lamented that the world was stealing our ideas.
As we move into the 21st century, Europe may leapfrog the United States in both its ability to nurture startups and its ability to train its startup lawyers. At that point, we had best turn our attention back to Europe to learn from, and collaborate with, the new generation of European legal and entrepreneurial thought-leaders and pioneers.
Jonathan Askin is founder and director of the Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy Clinic at Brooklyn Law School.