In addition to its Arlington, Va. headquarters and state-based offices, IJ operates a legal clinic at the University of Chicago Law School that simultaneously supports entrepreneurs struggling to overcome legal barriers to starting up while helping train law students to be effective advocates for those entrepreneurs. 1
For decades, the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship has tirelessly advocated on behalf of over 200 clients ranging from flower peddlers to tech startups. What unifies IJ Clinic clients is a combination of big entrepreneurial dreams and the need for legal support and advocacy to overcome the burdens faced by small businesses. While large or established businesses with significant capital are often able to hire legal services, or even retain full-time compliance staff, small business owners and entrepreneurs operate at a huge disadvantage as they try to navigate administrative or regulatory barriers to business start-up and growth on their own.
In addition to legal representation, the IJ Clinic hosts conferences, conducts and publishes research, organizes grassroots activists, and engages directly with city and state officials to improve the policy climate for small businesses in Chicago.
The IJ Clinic’s deep roots and history in the city of Chicago mean that its staff and the students they work with have the in-depth experience necessary to guide clients and partners through the otherwise daunting processes of starting and growing their small businesses, all while working towards meaningful, constructive reform to help entrepreneurs in the future.
IJ’s Clinic on Entrepreneurship
The IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship provides free legal assistance, support and advocacy for low-income entrepreneurs in Chicago. The IJ Clinic also trains the next generation of attorneys to be vigorous and creative advocates for entrepreneurs.Learn More
The Street Vendors Association of Chicago heard about the work of the IJ Clinic and reached out for help because police were telling them they were not allowed to sell. The vendors did not understand the city’s rules and did not know how to change the law so they could operate legally. After years of collaboration, the IJ Clinic and the Association worked with the city to pass rules that would give vendors a chance to operate legally. The rules and the licensing process are still confusing and burdensome, however, and the IJ Clinic continues to advocate for further reform and transparency. 2
Another IJ Clinic client, Becky Mueller, wanted to stay in Chicago after graduating from fashion school, but recognized that retail opportunities were declining in an age of online shopping.
Her solution—buying a 25-foot truck and creating the mobile boutique North and Hudson—allowed her to meet her customers directly in Chicago’s business districts. The licensing process for her mobile business, however, was difficult, reflecting the slow pace at which many cities adapt to new business models.
Thanks to persistent advocacy by the IJ Clinic, Chicago finally adopted rules to legalize mobile boutiques like Becky’s. But the delay and the uncertainty were too much for Becky to bear. She moved her mobile boutique out of state to a more friendly legal environment. 3
Joey & Emily Ward
Ana Galindo has been vending on Chicago streets for 15 years, selling traditional Mexican treats like tamales, elotes, and aguas frescas—treats she learned to prepare alongside her mother while growing up in Mexico. Street vending, Ana notes, is a way not just to flexibly provide for herself and her four kids, but also a way for her and her customers to feel connected to their cultural roots. But Ana’s journey has not always been easy, especially when obtaining permission to vend from city officials.
In Chicago, street vendors that sell from carts like Ana’s are required to prepare their products in a restaurant or commercial kitchen, a requirement that is stifling for many vendors, who, especially during the pandemic, have struggled to afford steep rents for kitchen space. On top of those steep rents, the multiple licenses required to make food and vend used to cost street vendors $800—until recently, when officials listened to vendors’ concerns and agreed to lower the fee to $100 (a needed change that should serve as a model to other cities).
Meanwhile, rules for cart specifications and the kinds of food vendors can sell are not only complicated and often poorly communicated, but also keep vendors from being able to fully capitalize on meeting customers’ demands. As an example, Ana recalls going to City Hall with all the documentation needed to get her license, only to be told that the instructions she had been given before were faulty—and that she would not be able to obtain a license based on the products she planned to sell. Ana also recounts being told she needed to serve toppings in individual containers, contrary to her customers’ preferences. Before she obtained her license, officials even went so far as to penalize her for vending by assessing multiple tickets and pouring bleach on her products to prevent further sales, an experience Ana found devastating. All in all, Ana believes the process for street vendors must be simpler so that more people like her can get licensed to vend legally instead of having to operate in the shadows.