Newest clinic offers lifeline to entrepreneurs, businesses, and nonprofits
Clients in the law school’s new Intellectual Property and Transactional Law Clinic call it a “godsend,” a “lifeline.” Students say taking the six-credit course is the best decision they’ve ever made.
In its first semester last spring, the clinic and its J.D. candidates contributed an estimated $219,000 worth of services to the Richmond community, based on hours of legal work, according to Clinic Director John Carroll, L’95.
As a teaching law firm, the Intellectual Property and Transactional Law Clinic helps individuals start businesses and it addresses contracts and licensing needs. The clinic also serves artists and inventors who want to protect their creations, and assists companies looking to assign or acquire intellectual property rights. It builds on the popularity of the School of Law’s Intellectual Property Institute.
“This role lets me help both students and people with pressing legal needs in their businesses and nonprofits,” Carroll says. “I help the students interact with their clients, and turn theory into practice. That’s our hallmark at the School of Law. And being part of the community is an important aspect of The Richmond Promise, the University’s strategic plan.”
In the inaugural spring semester, clinic associates included Diane Pletcher, L’10. Pletcher spent 68 hours assisting Tappan August, the liquid herbal supplement entrepreneur behind ULIVE LLC. He needed counsel on a variety of trademark prosecution and infringement matters, as well as business counseling and contract review.
Carroll calls ULIVE a small business with some very sophisticated legal issues that needed immediate attention and lots of action that required substantial analysis by Pletcher. “I like transactional law. I like trademark law, too. With Tappan as a client, I feel like I had the opportunity to develop expertise in both areas,” Pletcher says.
August found out about the clinic through his SCORE small-business counselor when he was at the tail end of the trademark registration process and two competing products with similar marks appeared in the marketplace. “The law clinic, J.D. candidates, and Mr. Carroll have truly been a lifeline in keeping the ULIVE mission and vision alive,” he says. Frank Oroszlan, L’11, now works with August.
Last fall, Wiley Grandy, L’11, worked with Boatwright Memorial Library employee Joanita Senoga, C’06, to form a U.S. nonprofit to raise funds and support educational institutions like the Circle of Peace School she founded in her native Uganda. The school is seeking to complete the purchase of property that will allow it to expand and serve more children.
Senoga was his primary client, says Grandy, who called enrolling in the clinic probably the best decision he’s made at law school. “She’s so deeply committed to children. I’m happy I can help her help others.” He admitted to some nervousness when dealing with his first legal matter, but “that anxious feeling has gone away as I’m getting to know my clients.”
While Grandy had taken a few courses in the law school that relate to tax issues, applications for tax-exempt status were new to him—“and the tax code is not the easiest thing to get a firm understanding of.” The international aspect added a further complication. “It doesn’t make it impossible, but it means that there are additional hoops to be jumped through,” he says.
Clinic clients vary
In two brief semesters, members of the Intellectual Property and Transactional Law Clinic, under direction of their supervising attorney, Assistant Clinical Professor John Carroll, have provided free legal assistance to a variety of clients. They performed numerous patent and trademark searches and helped form several businesses.
Some examples of their clients:
- A recording studio in Armenia that would like to gain distribution to Central Asians living in the United States
- An online retailer of used maternity clothing that needed help with a purchasing agreement
- A literacy consultant seeking help drafting contracts her clients can understand
- An online pet food bakery in need of intellectual property advice
- A convicted felon who wanted to start a business that could contract with the state government
- Several individual inventors who needed help with patentability analyses, and others who needed help with patent applications
- A television writer/director/producer who needed several copyright and business contracts drafted
- A local farmer who needed help with business formation issues and an estate planning issue
- A wedding consultant who needed help with business contract review and drafting
- A child-care provider who needed a lease evaluated
- A veteran who was seeking disabled veteran status for his business.
For Senoga, who borrowed funds to assist in the property purchase, the free legal assistance was priceless. “I’m blessed that these law students are here,” Senoga says. “I’m giving; I want to work with others who want to be giving back.”
In the spring semester, Jim Stubbs, L’10, a CPA, put his accounting background to use in determining rights and royalties for songwriter Kelli Lieder, who sought counsel before she could commercialize a children’s musical project.
“I never expected searching on the Internet [for free legal help] that I would find such a gold mine. It was a godsend,” says Lieder. “I know God put us together. Jim spent so much time and interest in what I was doing.” Clinic Director Carroll smiles before summarizing that case. “I couldn’t have paid Kelli to come up with a more tangled intellectual property conundrum for the students to tackle,” Carroll says. “Nothing focuses the mind like a real person with a real problem.”
Lieder cowrote various musical pieces 15 years ago, and since then her collaborator lost interest in the project they called the “International Day of Praise.” A simple problem became inordinately complex.
For Stubbs, it was a huge learning exercise. “The issue kept getting more and more complicated and bigger and scarier,” Carroll says. The music and lyrics were the tip of the iceberg. Sheet music had been created. The 13 songs were performed by the collaborators’ children for a compact disc using the recorded percussion available on electronic keyboards. A script providing costume suggestions, staging advice, and choral directions had been written. Lieder also had compiled a book of international facts as another companion to the package.
“I’d find out one thing and then be asked about another and then another product,” Stubbs says. “It took some concentration to help this client. It wasn’t cut and dried.” Stubbs worked on the case for 109 hours, an estimated $17,440 in free legal advice at an hourly rate of $160.
A week after determining the share of royalties and rights to the package, Lieder says, she began a speaking tour for her company, Circle of N’fluence. She participated in several conventions in the spring and placed the product for sale at a New Kent County, Va., bookstore.
“I can do it in full confidence that I’m doing it right.” Lieder now anticipates the day she starts making a profit and needs to compensate the contributors.
To these early successes, the clinic adds another. The University of Richmond School of Law has been invited as one of 16 participants in a pilot program that would grant a provisional right for students to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “Generally that’s only open to bar-certified lawyers,” Carroll says. “The trade-off is we must be available to the Trademark Office between the semesters and during the summer. I’m hoping that this means the opportunity to serve the community will increase.”
Along the way, students have helped to create a thriving law firm, serving on marketing and operations committees, and addressing the small and large issues any start-up faces. “We aimed for this to be a client-based experience, but it also has been providing law firm management as well. The combination is natural,” says School of Law Dean John G. Douglass. “It was an added element. The whole thing has reached beyond my expectations.”
The clinic’s caseload is handled by a maximum of eight law students, and accepts cases that play off the students’ existing expertise and their future practice interests. For instance, if participants have a biology or medical background, the clinic might take on biotechnology-related matters. Carroll also looks for clients who aren’t financially healthy enough to hire an attorney. “Everyone has a client who can’t pay but deserves to be helped,” adds the professor, who joined the law school full time in 2009 after many years of experience, both as a lawyer in private practice and as in-house counsel.
The clinic also performs legal work for the University itself. “Many of our legal matters are handled by outside counsel or the University’s general counsel,” says Douglass, “but this provides an interesting set of skills in intellectual property and transitional law in an education environment. From an economic perspective, it’s a nice thing to add.” The clinic is working with the University to review its intellectual property policy, says Carroll, and developing materials—such as Web, Power Point, and in-person communications—to help stakeholders and employees understand how the University IP policy affects them.
In addition to University matters, those that Carroll attracts from the community, and those drawn by the clinic’s own marketing, the students themselves bring potential clients.
“I encourage them to build deep relationships with their clients, to use word of mouth to friends and neighbors,” Carroll says. “When they’re in a job interview they can say, ‘Yes, I’ve formed an LLC, I’ve handled patent cases, I’ve filed trademark applications. By the way, these people are my clients and I’d like to bring them with me.’
“The benefit of the clinic is that newly minted lawyers go into the practice of law already having a rich experience interacting with clients,” Carroll adds. “Here, while in law school, it’s something they’ve done, even before day one.”