Free Legal Clinic in Chicago Celebrates 10 Years of Helping Low- and Moderate-Income Entrepreneurs

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 4, 2008

Chicago—University of Chicago law students start back to school this week. But while many leisurely discuss summer jobs or marvel at the cost and weight of their new books, a small group has more pressing issues to attend. They are the law students returning to work in the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which marks its 10th Anniversary this year. These students are busy learning how to counsel inner-city entrepreneurs on how to build a strong business in the face of confusing legal requirements and daunting economic hardship.

During the past 10 years, 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 debated whether the freedom to earn a living is one of the inalienable rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Just as importantly, 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 this month will launch 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. Last year, 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 attorneys who direct the Clinic are crafting a study about the barriers that confront lower-income entrepreneurs in Chicago. The IJ Clinic will also seek out new clients whose businesses will make a tremendous difference in their communities, all the while training new students to support those clients. Even in these scary 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.