University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law.
University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

When it came time to incorporate her startup company Appcruit last year, founder Charlie Watkins tried to go it alone.

Fellow entrepreneurs had warned her that hiring a law firm to legally establish Appcruit, which connects diverse college students with employers, would be pricey and that she should do it herself. But wading through internet advice websites, online legal documents and application forms left Watkins feeling overwhelmed. So she quit trying.

“The terminology used on some of these applications and the amount of paper work you have to complete—you run the risk of doing it the wrong way,” said Watkins, who works in recruiting at Uber Technologies Inc. in addition to getting Appcruit off the ground.

Watkins eventually found help from Access to Entrepreneurship—a new program from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law that provides legal assistance to entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups, including blacks and Latinos. The program is the latest addition to the two-year-old Startup@BerkeleyLaw, a slate of law school courses, extracurricular activities and research projects focused on entrepreneurship and innovation.

As a pilot project of the new effort focused specifically on underrepresented entrepreneurs, Berkeley law students and volunteer attorneys from Cooley helped Watkins, who is black, think through how to incorporate Appcruit, how to manage some key financial decisions and what she will need to do to find commercial office space.

“It probably would have taken me a long time to get here if not for their help,” Watkins said.

Access to Entrepreneurship is Startup@BerkeleyLaw’s first initiative assisting entrepreneurs outside of Berkeley’s campus community, said co-founder Adam Sterling, who also serves as executive director of Berkeley’s Center for Law, Business and the Economy. Startup@BerkeleyLaw is partnering with nonprofits to connect with underrepresented entrepreneurs. The first such partnership is with Code2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports black and Latino engineers and entrepreneurs. Watkins found out about Access to Entrepreneurship as a Code2040 volunteer and was among its first beneficiaries. The program officially launches this week when the law school, with financial support from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, will bring 30 more black and Latino entrepreneurs to Code2040′s annual summit on Friday and Saturday. Law students and lawyers from some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent law firms will hold workshops and work individually with entrepreneurs to discuss incorporation and other legal issues startups face. The law school will also host a workshop on campus the day after the summit.

Sterling said he hopes the project will help entrepreneurs “who don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg” gain a foothold in Silicon Valley. The companies that succeed aren’t necessarily the ones with the best service or product, Sterling said, but those that can raise capital. And that often comes down to who has connections with investors. Lawyers also play a key role in referring entrepreneurs to venture capitalists, he said.

“The first step is having access,” Sterling said. “It’s largely a closed network here. It starts with the lawyers—the folks they take on and provide referrals to come from their network. Investors often say they don’t respond to cold emails. Thus, there’s this whole group of fantastic entrepreneurs across the country that [investors] are not exposed to.”

In addition to handling strictly legal matters, Startup@BerkeleyLaw helps entrepreneurs navigate Silicon Valley conventions and connects them with key players. (Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and startup incubator Y Combinator are among the project’s collaborators.)

Clients learn how to talk to investors and what role lawyers play in the startup sphere, Sterling said. The law students and volunteer attorneys also help startups plan their future.

“We talk about the pros and cons of venture capital: Do you seek outside investors to grow your company, or does it make more sense to grow through bootstrapping like creating revenues early on or using your own capital?” Sterling said. “We’ll talk bout how you capitalize your company. How do you bring on employees? How do you bring on contractors? How do you deal with HR issues?”

Startup@BerkeleyLaw plans to partner with additional organizations in the future that serve a broad array of underserved entrepreneurs, including women and other minority groups.

But the fledgling Access to Entrepreneurship project has already earned high marks from Watkins, who personally interviews and recruits diverse students from colleges outside the top tier and helps place them in jobs and prominent companies through Appcruit.

“Tons of people have great ideas in underrepresented minority communities,” she said. “But what ends up happening is, when you think about incorporation, it’s very daunting. Most of us don’t have a network of people we can ask for support or help or get the money to undertake incorporation. Having the opportunity to work through Code 2040 with Startup@BerkeleyLaw is going to be super helpful.”