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Dalhousie law school launches clinic for early tech startups

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 @ 9:47 AM | By Donalee Moulton

Dalhousie University’s law school has started a new clinic for students — and a new law firm for early stage startups.

The initio Technology and Innovation Law Clinic is intended to help startups in the formative phases to have affordable and easy access to legal services, said director Jacqueline Walsh. “At this stage, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t have the money to hire a law firm.”

Jacqueline Walsh, Director of the initio Technology and Innovation Law Clinic

The law clinic, launched quietly earlier this year, also offers students the option to delve a little deeper into the legal needs of new tech firms. They are given nine credit hours for their work at the clinic. “My focus is on the client, not the student, so the student will have a better experience,” Walsh said.

Finally, work done at the clinic and for its clients provides an important opportunity to inform, noted Walsh. “IP law is not well understood in the startup world. We’ll talk to anybody, and we’ll educate. We don’t charge for this.”

Clients are charged, however, for services they wish to buy. Those costs are minimal. Clients can subscribe to receive legal services for a flat fee of $100 a month. “Tech companies are used to subscription-based fees,” said Walsh. “We will do the legal work they need within reason.”

Companies not wising to subscribe can pay $100 per service contracted. This includes everything from assignment of intellectual property to shareholder and employment agreements to legal research to privacy policies. “We do a lot of incorporations,” Walsh noted. “We’ve seen a lot of do-it-yourself contracts.”

What the Dalhousie law clinic won’t do is take money from private firms. “If companies have raised $200,000 in private equity, they can go elsewhere. … We’re not stealing work from law firms,” Walsh said.

Indeed, she noted, “we don’t intend to make any money off this, but I believe companies should not get free legal services — companies need to know this is a cost of doing business.”

The startup legal clinic, an idea that arose out of the law school’s strategic plan, is also looking to attract companies that are serious about their businesses and their business ideas. “We want quality work for the students to learn,” Walsh said noting that any fees paid are put back into the operation of the clinic.

The initiative, funded with a $300,000 donation from Stewart McKelvey Lawyers, is running virtually in an effort to more easily reach rural businesses. There is physical space allocated at the Schulich School of Law, however, which will be open when COVID-19 restrictions and concerns are no longer paramount. At present, services are available only in Nova Scotia, but Walsh hopes the clinic will expand to serve all of Atlantic Canada.

There has been no direct advertising. Instead, business has been growing through word of mouth and through government programs such as those run by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED) in Halifax.

While other law schools have business clinics up and running, the initio Technology and Innovation Law Clinic breaks new ground in Canada. “Our model is unique,” said Walsh.

Another area of innovation: its use of the latest technology. “We’re using technology to make the practice more efficient and to show students the world they will be going into,” Walsh said. Among the tech in place is software for the legal and regulatory market that offers a secure cloud-based platform for business collaboration, workflow automation and client engagement.

The clinic, hand in hand with the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, is also able to offer joint paid articles, believed to be a another first in Canada. Articling students spend six months at each centre.

For other law schools looking to launch similar clinics, Walsh offers this advice: get a good lawyer. “Clinics with no designated lawyer will not work as well,” she said. “We’re breaking down barriers. A barrier is not a seasonal commitment.”