By Andrew Cohen
Their reasons for joining Berkeley Law’s Startup Law Initiative (SLI) are as diverse as the student group’s fast-growing client base.
Co-founder Morgan Dudkewitz ’16 was eager for 1Ls to have “the opportunity to do some pro bono transactional work, since there weren’t any other transactional SLPs (Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects) at the time.”
Current President Esther Yang ’20 “wanted to give back to my community and remind myself why I came to law school in the first place.” Deborah Kang, who oversees the initiative, relished the chance to “get to work with amazing people and help grow a platform that organizes numerous offerings in the startup and venture capital space for students and founders.”
In 2016, Dudkewitz and co-founder Hannah Porter ’16 joined forces with Startup@Berkeley Law to launch the SLI. The expanding group provides a valuable opportunity for first-year students to gain meaningful experience working with and incorporating new businesses led by low-income and minority founders.
“Given Berkeley’s geographic location in the heart of Silicon Valley and the fact that so many of our students work in the startup and venture capital field, we wanted to create a program that organized our existing offerings in the space and provided a platform to do even more,” says Adam Sterling ’13, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business.
Through the SLI, first-year students work with law firms to provide free legal incorporation services to local entrepreneurs—enabling them to overcome costly hurdles to launching their business. Students help create and file formation documents through work that includes research, client intake, interviews, and other interactions with clients and supervising attorneys.
Last year, Yang drafted and filed formation documents under the guidance of lawyers from Morrison & Foerster during fall semester and from Gunderson Dettmer during spring semester. She helped develop a business idea for an electronic marketplace in Korea to help finance plaintiffs’ litigation efforts by connecting them and attorneys with potential investors.
“Pro bono is part of the Berkeley Law social fabric and I wanted to be a part of it,” Yang says.
More than 100 applicants apply each year to the SLI, which has 12 students being mentored by five 2Ls who worked in the group last year. Each year, incoming students are trained by past participants and supervised by attorneys from various Silicon Valley firms.
Owen Kent, whose new company Ajna Labs will be developing video games, calls the SLI “an invaluable resource that really helped get operations off the ground. It was so useful to have access to two students (Will Lowery ’21 and Katelyn Feliciano ’21) who knew what they were doing. I feel in a much better place to bring my company to the next level.”
Kent credits Lowery and Feliciano for their engagement, providing an “invaluable explanation” of various legalese, and communicating regularly.
“They helped ensure that the incorporation process was being done to my unique needs and specifications,” Kent says. “They were so useful as we navigated topics such as IP assignment, stock issuance, and corporate governance. I feel much more educated and equipped to forge my way to corporate success.”
The initiative’s student board also provides mentorship by helping group members prepare for their upcoming 1L summer jobs—and by giving advice about how to tackle first-year classes. This spring, group leaders hope to conduct a training session on public benefit corporations, and to visit law firms and in-house legal departments.
Kang, who joined the law school to lead Startup@Berkeley Law in September 2017, had spent more than three years at a large firm.
“As an associate in Big Law, I often found myself helping clients after they were already in the middle of a problem,” she says. “At Berkeley, I’m able to help founders start off on the right foot. At the same time, through programs like the Startup Law Initiative, I’m also able to help students get a taste of what it means to be an associate, which was a mystery to me when I was in their shoes.”