From the Community | SLS has an opportunity to lead by starting a sustainability entrepreneurship law program

Oct. 16, 2022, 6:52 p.m.

The recent launch of the Doerr School of Sustainability is an historic accomplishment. Long the global leader among universities in energy technology and entrepreneurship more generally, including in renewable energy technology and climate tech ventures more specifically, Stanford has a powerful opportunity to establish itself as the global leader in sustainability. One especially promising avenue to build off the momentum from the new school would be to launch a sustainability entrepreneurship law program at the law school. 

Peer law schools all have entrepreneurship law clinics and programs where students can gain experience offering transactional legal help to entrepreneurs in areas such as incorporation, fundraising, business contracts, intellectual property licensing, employment matters and regulatory challenges:

Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic, which provides legal help to indigent individuals and nonprofits, offers law students some of the world’s best in clinical legal experiential education, and its success is to be celebrated. Stanford was the first law school to launch a Supreme Court Litigation Clinic. The law school’s Organizations and Transactions Law Clinic provides students with deeply rewarding work serving some of the country’s most well-renowned nonprofits while its Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic allows participating students incredible opportunities to work on the cutting edge of legal and policy issues affecting innovation and intellectual property matters. However, these clinical offerings do not include business legal assistance for impact-focused or low-income entrepreneurs that peer law school clinical programs provide. More could be done at the law school to build program offerings for students to gain experience offering on-the-ground business legal advice to help entrepreneurs grow their sustainability-focused startups. By choosing to fully engage in building such program offerings, the law school could catch up with and even exceed those of peer law schools. 

Stanford Law School also offers courses supporting general startup education, including a Venture Capital class, which provides students the chance to learn about the venture capital ecosystem from a theoretical and practical perspective; instructors and class lecturers include both leading legal and leading investor minds in the space. Such courses, however, do not yet offer students experiential education opportunities for servicing startups, although they could provide a strong complement to new experiential education opportunities, were the law school to choose to offer them. 

Stanford Law School has previously taken small steps to begin offering its students some experiential education opportunities to service entrepreneurs. During the 2016-2017 academic school year, the policy lab Business, Law, and Strategy in the Startup Economy allowed a small group of law students to work with faculty and selected outside practitioners to engage a  business to “identify, scope, research, and assess the significant legal, regulatory and business challenges and opportunities to the startup’s business model.” By the 2018-2019 academic year, the course received strong praise from participating students, with students giving a high average rating of 4.8 out of 5 for “Course Content and Evaluation” (evaluation records can be found by searching for “LAW, BUS, POL STRA STARTUP EC” in Stanford’s old Course Evaluation system available to students through Axess). The following year, however, the course ceased to be offered. 

Stanford law students took matters into their own hands by founding the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Law Project one year after the discontinuation of Business, Law, and Strategy in the Startup Economy. Although not as immersive as the experiential course, the project nonetheless offers students some exposure to startup work, allowing 15 law students per quarter, under the supervision of the legal aid nonprofit Start Small Think Big, to gain experience spending about 1-2 hours each week supporting Bay Area entrepreneurs. In the coming academic year, the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, a joint initiative of Stanford Law School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, will join Start Small Think Big to help guide law students in this work. Such support and interdisciplinary collaboration by the law school and business school is welcome, but more can be done to relaunch and build on Stanford’s startup business law experiential education opportunities for law students, including in ways that could also better benefit Stanford business students and other Stanford student entrepreneurs, as has been seen at the entrepreneurship law clinics of peer law schools such as Yale that serve startups from their own student populations. 

Even as the law school refrains from offering its students significant opportunities to service entrepreneurs, it has nonetheless led in other efforts to provide legal help to sustainability-focused ventures. In 2018, Stanford Law School and Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, in partnership with former California Governor Brown and national climate policy leaders such as current White House Deputy National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi, launched the Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy Initiative. The initiative matches low-income and social entrepreneurs of early-stage, sustainability-focused startups, including from the Stanford student and alumni community, with leading global law firms. So far, the law firms in the initiative have provided $55M in pro bono legal help to sustainability-focused startups and nonprofits over the last three years. The initiative’s pipeline of climate and environment-focused startups, including those run by Stanford students and alumni, could provide an incredible interdisciplinary opportunity in which Stanford law students could help Stanford business and engineering students launch their sustainability-focused ventures. Stanford Law School not only has the resources to provide its students with world-class programming on providing legal help to early-stage, sustainability-focused entrepreneurs, but is also well-placed to develop the world’s best such program. The law school has many potential avenues for such programming, whether through expanding its clinical offerings, providing additional support to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Project, and/or adding new policy labs or classes.  Not only would this better equip its students for jobs at the leading climate tech venture law firm practices that are both high-paying and drive positive impact on climate, but it would also better support Stanford’s community of sustainability-focused entrepreneurs. With the launch of the new school and the beginning of the academic year, now is an opportune time for Stanford Law School to join the rest of the University and lead on sustainability.

Jesse Lazarus is a 2022 J.D. graduate of Stanford Law School.  

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