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LEGAL ISSUES

Should Your Lawyer Specialize in Entrepreneurship?

Law schools will begin offering a specialized degree in entrepreneurship next year. But will the owners of start-ups consider this specialty essential when hiring a lawyer?

It's hard to start a company without involving a lawyer, but it can be even harder to figure out what type of lawyer to hire. There has never been an official credential for an 'entrepreneurial lawyer.' That is, until Duke Law School invented one. Two months ago, the school announced that it will be moving forward with plans to offer a LLM degree in entrepreneurship for the 2010-2011 school year.

The one-year program is primarily aimed at lawyers who want to advise entrepreneurs or to be entrepreneurs themselves. The University of Colorado at Boulder Law School has plans to launch a similar program within the year, but is still waiting for official approval.

While many law schools have been offering classes on entrepreneurship for years, these schools are the first to offer an additional degree. LLM degrees are typically reserved for highly technical areas of law, like taxes, or for lawyers from other countries who want to practice in the United States. An LLM degree in a broad subject like entrepreneurship is unusual, and it is yet to be seen if it will be something start-ups consider when they are hiring a lawyer.

Brad Bernthal, who will teach classes for the Colorado program, sees one of the major advantages of hiring a lawyer with an entrepreneurial law degree is his or her understanding of the business mindset. This he says, can help bootstrapping start-up companies prioritize their legal needs.

Bill Brown, who helped start the Duke program, agrees that this understanding can be mutually beneficial. 'Lawyers are generally taught how to spot issues, but too frequently they're not given the tools to solve the problems the way that their clients solve the problem,' he says. 'And this really addresses that.'

Both programs plan to incorporate externships at start-up companies in their programs, and both schools believe that their programs will benefit from their geographical locations in hearts of innovation; Duke Law is in the 'Research Triangle' region of North Carolina and Colorado Law is in proximity to the 'Mile High Tech Area' between Boulder and Denver.

But some are skeptical that a specialized degree is necessary for a lawyer to succeed in entrepreneurship. 'The whole concept of entrepreneurship is not to specialize in one area, it's diversification in multiple areas to assist an entrepreneur,' says David Mann, who teaches a class on entrepreneurship at Northwestern Law.

A lawyer who is advising a start-up company may deal with issues relating to intellectual property, licensing, real estate, taxes, partnership agreements, loans, and many others.

 'All of a sudden you've gone through eight or nine areas of the law and haven't even scratched the surface yet,' Mann says. He thinks the true value of studying entrepreneurship would be that a lawyer would know when to refer clients to a specialist. For instance, a lawyer with an LLM in entrepreneurship won't be able to master patent law within the one-year program, but he or she will be able to recognize when a client will need a patent and refer him or her to a specialist. The degree would also be useful for lawyers at the smaller start-ups where entrepreneurs can't afford to hire several lawyers in a range of specialties at first. At these smaller firms, it's up to a smaller group of lawyers to know a little bit of everything as compared to a larger firm that may have lawyers in every specialty. 

Jake Beinecke, a law student and the executive director of the Law and Social Entrepreneurship Association at NYU, is glad that schools are starting to address entrepreneurship, but plans to pursue other routes to gain his credentials in working with start-ups.

'I've spent a lot of time in law school trying to develop the right kind of experience—take the right classes, develop the right kind of work experience and internships—so that I have skills that are directly relevant to entrepreneurism and also so that my resume reflects those skills,' he says. 'Having an extra LLM degree in a subject area like entrepreneurship, I don't think it's worth the time or money, for me.' 

This is certainly the approach Mann used when he started to work with small businesses almost 50 years ago. 'I went to the school of hard knocks for entrepreneurial law,' he jokes. 'There's a lot of lawyers like me who learn what t hey need to know to serve their clients. You might have an LLM, but are you dry behind the ears yet?'

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