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Learning the ropes in COVID times

University of Manitoba pioneers all-virtual business law clinic to help local start-ups.

L” Kerry Business Law Clinic

In the fall of 2020, with a new academic year stretching out in front of their zoom screens, a group of concerned jurists wondered how they could help students gain the kind of practical experience they need to transition into a career with confidence, given that the usual options weren’t available.

Since 2014 the Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic at the University of Manitoba has afforded students the opportunity to develop practical skills by working on real cases with Winnipeg law firms under the guidance and mentorship of experienced lawyers. In a pandemic, this obviously wasn’t going to work.

Acting Dean David Asper was determined to find a way to give the 2020-21 graduating class the same opportunity their predecessors had. Just before the Christmas break Director of Special Projects Lisa Fainstein and veteran lawyer Nick Slonosky connected with the Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship and with Joelle Foster at North Forge Technology Exchange, a business incubator and accelerator, and by January they were up and running with an all-virtual business law clinic for start-ups.

“It was incredibly quick,” Fainstein says with a laugh.

Normally the in-person business law clinic only has a dozen students, but this year the enrolment tripled. One of the third-year students who joined, Alex Philippot, enjoys the fact that the online clinic gives her a better idea of what she’s getting into with a career in commercial law. “That’s been really nice because without that practical aspect you don’t really know.”

North Forge spent three months last summer creating an online digital program for tech founders and those founding advanced manufacturing companies. They have seen a 293% increase in the number of companies wanting to work with them. “That’s a huge pool of clients to help,” Foster says. “Most of them don’t have the money for legal advice, but they need it. There is a lot that these founders do not know about the legal system when it comes to starting a business in technology and even advanced manufacturing.”

At the new online clinic, legal information services are offered entirely free of charge. “I like using the phrase that we have no windows, we have no doors, we have no ceilings and no floors,” Nick Slonosky explains. “But I’d like to emphasize -- we also have no barriers.”

Entrepreneurs and founders need advice on everything from taxes, permits and regulations to whether to incorporate. But they also have much to offer law students as well. “I don’t have a background in business, and I don’t know very much about founders,” Philippot says. “It’s an interesting perspective to see it from their point of view and issues they think of.” Helping people is an added benefit for students. “Giving back, that’s something I’ve always been passionate about. It’s very much who I want to be, and who I am, and I want to portray that,” Philippot adds.

This initiative would not have been possible without mentors, institutional support from the university and outside partners like the legal software company Clio, that provided its practice management system to the students at no cost. “You’re dealing with confidential stuff that’s proprietary but also personal, we didn’t want to use the University of Manitoba email system or that depository, we needed a secure envelope, so Clio gave us complimentary, their state-of-the-art practice management system which is just incredible,” Slonosky says.

Learning by doing

“What’s unique about this program,” Philippot says, “is that it brings in all the knowledge we have gained in our first two years. You learn certain things in tax law, family law, and corporate law, but it all comes together as one” at the clinic, where the students look at all the different aspects of business and law and see how they interact with each other. Seeing all the pieces of the puzzle come together in real-life situations is what experiential learning is all about.

Being virtual has a lot of advantages, says Lisa Fainstein. “For students, it means they don’t need to travel somewhere to meet a client. Our campus is actually at one end of the city, it’s a bit remote from where most businesses are. North Forge is downtown - we’re talking hours of travel time if we were to meet downtown.” That’s why many aspects of the legal clinic will remain virtual even once COVID-19 is but a distant memory, she adds, since this year’s experience “really enabled us to do more, to do it more cheaply, to do it more efficiently.”

Another, perhaps less obvious advantage is that the clinic provides students, who have been working home alone like so many of us for the past year, with an opportunity to work with others. “And it also delivers optimism at a time when people need some optimism,” Slonosky adds.

The clinic not only met Acting Dean David Asper’s expectations, it exceeded them. The students got substantive learning, he said. They got to virtually collaborate with each other and interact with real clients, a much-needed antidote to the isolation of COVID. “Our students were introduced to the Clio practice management platform as well as the Slack communication tool, both of which will facilitate the transition from school to career,” he adds. “Finally, and I know this from my own mentoring sessions with the students, they started to think of the law not merely as a set of rules but as a rolling sea in which they must navigate.”

Plus, Nick Slonosky and Lisa Fainstein both agree, making it possible for students to learn by helping start-ups is a great deal of fun. “This is the best thing I’ve done in 40-plus years of practice,” Slonosky says with a chuckle. “Definitely something to come out of retirement for.”