The Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship’s growing legacy became visible this past May as generations of clients and students crowded together to celebrate the IJ Clinic’s tenth anniversary. For the past decade, the IJ Clinic has operated out of the University of Chicago Law School, uniting law students—who needed practical legal experience—with low- and middle-income entrepreneurs—who could not otherwise afford legal help, but who desperately needed the guidance to create a private sector business.
The result? New businesses that continue to grow, even in this tough economy.
The atmosphere of the tenth anniversary celebration was festive and familial. An inner-city shoe store owner embraced a former IJ Clinic student who is now a tax attorney at one of the biggest firms downtown. A law student dined with the owner of a limousine company, who explained how much it meant to receive his corporate charter with help from the IJ Clinic back in 2000: He took his small children down to the Capitol to pick up the papers himself. The founders of Tasty Delite presented IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor with a package of their latest product—a kit for instant sweet potato pie. Carwash owner Larry Young—barely recognizable without his customary ball cap and overalls—got right to business when he spotted his student-lawyers, who were excited to learn he had received some important documents back from the state. Even in the midst of the festivities, students and clients were hard at work expanding entrepreneurship in Chicago.
The evening culminated with a panel presentation of three current IJ Clinic clients. They spoke eloquently about their struggles to achieve their dreams. Two, for the moment, have been forestalled by government interference. Ken Coats, for example, aimed to help people in his community who can’t get jobs because they have arrest records, even if they were never convicted of any crime. They might be eligible to get their records expunged, and Ken learned the ins and outs of that complicated process. But the Illinois Attorney General ordered Ken to stop helping his customers, because it constituted an “unauthorized practice of law.” He said he was utterly lost when he was summoned by the AG’s office, and the IJ Clinic helped him find his way out. With the IJ Clinic’s help, Ken has redesigned his business, which keeps growing.
Esmeralda Rodriguez spoke next. Esmeralda created programs for toddlers at the Park District field house in her neighborhood. She decided to build her own business where she could provide stimulating playtime for small children accompanied by parents and caregivers. Despite the business’s commendable mission, the city is requiring her to get a “Public Place of Amusement” license—the same license strip clubs or stadiums must secure. Her savings are disappearing as she and her IJ Clinic legal advocates wrestle with the city’s convoluted, onerous requirements, including a public notice to neighbors so they can object to her venture. The entire room choked up as she described her dream of providing activities for children in the neighborhood where she grew up, whose families could not afford day camps and other luxuries.
Finally, entrepreneur Julie Welborn painted a picture of the charming café she built with her business partner Denise Nicholes. (Their story was told in detail in Liberty & Law, October 2007, www.ij.org/PerfectPeace.) Their customers regularly ask why they opened such a classy and clean business in their overlooked neighborhood, instead of someplace fancier. Julie responds, “Why not? Seventy-Ninth Street deserves a place like this, too.”
Julie, Esmeralda and Ken all described the fundamental role of the entrepreneur. They spotted ways to serve customers that customers would really appreciate. It is absurd when government works to prevent businesses like these from opening or succeeding rather than give them the freedom and space to flourish.
Building off these three inspiring stories of resilience and passion, I announced to our assembled friends that IJ Clinic Assistant Director Emily Satterthwaite and I released a report capturing these and many more similar stories. Our guests were the first to receive copies of the report, called Regulatory Field: Home of Chicago Laws. Throughout the week, Emily and I conducted interviews with Chicago-area media, such as Chicago Public Radio’s top local program Eight Forty-Eight, retelling the stories of these entrepreneurs who want nothing more than the right to earn an honest living in the trade of their choice free from unnecessary, unwise and often unconstitutional government constraints.
We, like the entrepreneurs around the room, have a dream too. We will spend another 10 years . . . another 20 . . . or even another 50 years if that is what it takes continuing to support Chicagoans’ passionate efforts to serve customers with their talents and their labor. And we will do whatever we can to sweep—or, if necessary, bulldoze—absurd, counter-productive legal restrictions out of their way.
Beth Milnikel is the IJ Clinic director.