Inside the legal advice clinic helping London’s start-ups

Ahead of ‘FinTech, AI and online justice: what technology means for the next generation of lawyers’, Legal Cheek Careers meets Ben Robinson, the City, University of London law graduate heading up operations at Start-Ed

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As City, University of London’s ground-breaking Start-Ed project moves into its fifth year, Legal Cheek Careers caught up with the law graduate who has been managing its operations since 2014 to hear about what it has achieved and what plans it has for the future.

Legal Cheek Careers: How did Start-Ed start?

Ben Robinson: It was co-founded by Professor David Collins and Eric Klotz in 2012. There were two gaps. One was the high demand for legal advice among start-up companies around the Silicon Roundabout area in London with little money to pay for it. The other was a feeling that the academic side of law was too divorced from the practical. So David and Eric launched Start-Ed as a way to help solve those problems.

How big has it grown?

BR: Each term we receive 100-200 applications to join Start-Ed. There are approximately 75 available places. They come from every law course offered by City, including the LLB, LLMs, the LPC and the BPTC. We are continuously looking for ways to widen participation and create new opportunities. For example, we have been working with the UK Intellectual Property Office on the Start-Ed Student Accelerator Programme. Through this programme, we have provided paid internships to law students to work with some of our start-up clients. We are looking to get involved in similar partnerships in the future.

What does a typical clinic appointment involve?

BR: Each student is partnered with a lawyer — we work with Blake Morgan, Kennedys and DAC Beachcroft, while we also have a number of clinic advisor alumni who now work for the large City firms and often return to sit in on a session. The student helps identify the wider problem and advises on more of the front-end structural stuff, such as the different type of company structures. The solicitor then provides the actual legal advice, which most often relates to contract law or IP and patents.

Do you have any clients that have gone on to make it big?

BR: One of our biggest success stories is the Powergoat Popcord, a USB charger for phones created by students on one of City’s design masters courses. It has proved very popular and is now stocked by John Lewis. The founders worked with Start-Ed all the way through and it is great to see them doing so well.

We also have some other clients at more advanced stages, and have advised on venture capital contracts. Many more of our clients are working to get their businesses off the ground.

What do law students get out of it?

BR: It’s quite common for students to come out of their first session and say they learnt more from that than an entire year of contract law! Putting the law into practice connects the dots between what the textbooks are trying to teach you and helps develop that nebulous and shifting concept of commercial awareness.

It’s also useful for law students in that it helps them confront the reality that there is a lot that they don’t know, and that there is no shame in holding off from providing an answer to a question which reaches beyond one’s level of competency. Knowing how much you don’t know is often as important as knowing all that you can.

What have you gained personally from your involvement and what are your future plans?

BR: I have increased my personal and professional networks and gained commercial awareness and knowledge of the digital “flat white economy” near Silicon (Old Street) Roundabout that I simply couldn’t have attained otherwise. David, Eric and I have now written a research article and I’ve launched a free housing legal clinic called Roof Over London — something I may never have considered or been competent for without Start-Ed.

At its heart, law is not about law students or lawyers. This profession is about service to clients and their objectives. More than anything else, I have gained a practical understanding of how legal folks at any level — lawyers, paralegals, law students — can use skills and knowledge to add value, help others accomplish their goals and change the world for the better.

I plan to continue teaching and building Start-Ed to help more clients and students. I am also an accredited mediator with a keen interest in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) which has tremendous potential. I may well have formal legal practice in my future, but for the moment I’ve got enough interesting and important work to do with Start-Ed, teaching and voluntary initiatives to keep me around City University of London for a while yet.

Start-Ed‘s co-founder, Professor David Collins, will be speaking at ‘FinTech, AI and online justice: what technology means for the next generation of lawyers’ on Thursday 27 October.