University of Chicago law students have been hard at work this year. While most students spend time studying, reading and writing, some have taken additional responsibilities and opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. They are the law students who work at the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which marks its 10th Anniversary this year.
These students are busy meeting with their clients, interviewing potential new clients, and engaging in a wide range of legal issues and advocacy. With the variety of the IJ Clinic’s client base, each student team has a different lens through which they learn how to counsel inner-city entrepreneurs on how to build a strong business in the face of confusing legal requirements and daunting economic hardship. For some, it is through a collard-green entrepreneur’s co-packer agreement, for others, a plus-sized fashion boutique’s lease for new storefront space, and for yet others, it is the complexities of financing a new business’s launch in this harsh economic environment.
During the past 10 years, more than 115 University of Chicago law students have dedicated time, energy, intellect and empathy to help entrepreneurs across the Chicago region. In the classroom, they studied regulations that are especially burdensome to entrepreneurs and discussed how the freedom to earn a living is one of the inalienable rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Just as important, they stepped out of the classroom and into little shops and apartments in underserved neighborhoods all around the city. There, they helped clients chart a course for the American Dream, being careful to navigate around the shoals of zoning laws, incomprehensible contracts and government licensing requirements.
So far, the IJ Clinic has worked intensively with 175 local business clients. Among the businesses it helped create are the bustling Sweet Maple Café, Gallery Guichard, Perfect Peace Café & Bakery—which recently served cupcakes for Ringo Starr’s birthday party—and Shawnimals, LLC, which sells plush toys and, last fall, launched a Nintendo DS video game featuring its quirky characters. In addition, the IJ Clinic is a hub and resource for hundreds of community members and the organizations that serve them. The Clinic continues to host dozens of educational seminars and networking events where hundreds of novice business owners learn the basics of the business world. In 2007, the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship hosted a citywide conference that brought inner-city entrepreneurs as well as bankers, academics and community organizers together to talk about strategies and policies that would give creative and courageous entrepreneurs the space to follow their dreams.
These first 10 years are just the beginning. As the IJ Clinic celebrates its past accomplishments throughout the year, it will also surge ahead, serving still more Chicago start-up enterprises. With knowledge and wisdom built from working with so many entrepreneurs, the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship directors are crafting a study about the barriers that confront lower-income entrepreneurs in Chicago. The IJ Clinic is also seeking new clients whose businesses will make a tremendous difference in their communities, all while training new students to support those clients. Even in these daunting economic times, the IJ Clinic will be spreading the good news that the American Dream lives on as long as individuals have great ideas and the courage and persistence to make those ideas a reality.
Beth Milnikel is the director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship.