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News you can use: Charlotte School of Law helps startups for free

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

Whether you’re an established small business or the founder of an early stage startup, legal assistance and advice are valuable and, in most cases, required.

Nevertheless, those attorney fees can be some of the hardest to swallow – or budget for.

“A lot of startup (founders) don’t think they can afford an attorney,” said Emma Best, a licensed attorney and professor at Charlotte School of Law.

An hour with a first-year associate at a firm can cost around $200, she said, and more experienced attorneys often charge up to $500 and $600 an hour.

And that doesn’t include the cost of applying for state and federal licenses, patents, copyrights, trademarks and more.

That’s why Best and fellow attorney and professor Rocky Cabagnot oversee clinics where their most experienced law students offer free legal advice for entrepreneurs, nonprofits and community organizations. Before participating in the clinics, the students get a special license from the North Carolina Bar Association that allows them to practice law under supervision.

The goal of the clinics is two-fold, Cabagnot said: Give students real-life practice while also helping hundreds of local businesses and nonprofits.

“We’re making sure they know all the rules and regulations … so it gives them a better chance of being a successful business,” Cabagnot said. “And if they build businesses up, they’ll expand and continue to hire in Charlotte. It’s a win-win for everybody, and ultimately our clinics want to be part of that equation.”

So if your ears perked up at the notion of free legal advice, here’s what you need to know about the two pro bono clinics Charlotte School of Law offers.

The entrepreneurial clinic: Best oversees the clinic for early stage small businesses and startups. She has about 10 students who work with a total of about 25 clients over the course of the semester, helping business owners do everything from apply for licenses and register with the secretary of state to tackle complex client contracts and protect their brand through trademarking.

If a business is hiring, the student attorneys might help the business owners build employee agreements, benefits packages and human-resources regulations.

“It’s really dealing with any concerns with starting the business,” Best said. “And if they get to the level of ‘Hey, we’re structured, we’re good,’ (the students focus on) how the business deals with external clients.”

Best said many of her students’ clients have come through uptown startup hub Packard Place and Central Piedmont Community College’s entrepreneurial program.

The community economic-development clinic: Cabagnot’s students work with community organizations that provide “vital human services,” including anti-poverty organizations, neighborhood associations, charities and low-income housing developers.

“We focus primarily in the low-income areas and in rural counties,” Cabagnot said. Lately, they’ve worked with a lot of farmers, urban-agriculture missions and entrepreneurs whose ventures aim to solve social issues.

Many of his students help their clients deal with government compliance.

“We help them so they can go out and continue their mission,” Cabagnot said.

What they don’t offer: Best and Cabagnot’s students are practicing “transactional law,” which Cabagnot describes as “everything you don’t see on television.” The students are not stand-in litigators who would represent a client in court.

How it works: In their respective classes, Best and Cabagnot teach their students how to work with the clients and how to tackle the various issues they’ll be dealing with.

And each week, they’re assigned clients, and the clinics are each three hours long, once a week.

The professors are copied on every email, and they review all paperwork before the students submit it to the clients.

Want to participate? Fill out an application for your business, which you can get by emailing the professors.

For the entrepreneurial clinic: email Emma Best, ebest@charlottelaw.edu.

For the community economic development clinic: email Rocky Cabagnot, rcabagnot@charlottelaw.edu.

Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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