In a trendy residential district of Tokyo, a new kind of startup has taken root. Every so often, Japanese- and English-speaking legal advisers meet with entrepreneurs to dispense free one-on-one legal guidance.
Called StartEd, the service now operates in Tokyo, New York, London and Dublin. Skeptical of anything free, I jumped on the Odakyu Line one evening to make the journey to a StartEd event and “kick the tires” of the legal lifeline.
StartEd was launched as a social enterprise three years ago by two young attorneys with ties to academia, Naoise Gaffney and Eric Klotz. Klotz had been teaching at City Law School, part of City University London. Through StartEd, City students gain valuable face-to-face experience with would-be clients by giving unpaid but supervised advice to entrepreneurs in a client-like environment. The first beneficiaries were entrepreneurs clustered around Silicon Roundabout, the high-tech area near Old Street Station in London’s East End. City Law School promotes the service to its students as an internship opportunity.
At StartEd, law students shadow trained attorneys who typically dispense the guidance. Whenever students do give advice, it is under the close supervision of an experienced professional. The opportunity to rub shoulders with fast-moving entrepreneurs, especially those working in the digital space, provides an added allure to law students and experts alike. Those who build early relationships with tomorrow’s high fliers could find themselves serving them professionally in the long term. Some StartEd advisers are already involved in startups: Klotz, for example, is in-house legal counsel for Datahug, a global Internet startup.
The largest StartEd event is held weekly in London and attracts about 30 attendees. In total, 80 events have been organized worldwide; 1,700 entrepreneurs have been served; eight universities and 30 law firms are involved; 10 incubators are collaborators.
Crammed into the Open Source Cafe at the session I attended in Shimokitazawa were four practicing Japanese and Western lawyers. We were joined by a handful of entrepreneurs. Those who had questions, myself included, asked away. I was not disappointed with the answers. My own questions on international intellectual property were addressed with professionalism.
Cumulatively, StartEd has delivered about $300,000 worth of “free time” from professionals. “Most guidance given is of the sort that firms would not (or should not) charge for,” says StartEd co-founder Naoise Gaffney, noting that advisers discuss legal issues in general terms rather than delving into details.
“The aim is to arm startups with general knowledge of the legal field in which they operate,” Gaffney says.
Be forewarned: StartEd advisers don’t assume professional liability for advice given, nor do they extend client-attorney privileges. Those wanting a more personalized service — perhaps to draft a legal contract — should hire a lawyer.
Gaffney believes StartEd could grow to become as big as Startup Weekend, a social enterprise serving entrepreneurs that operates in 556 cities and 115 countries. The idea behind StartEd is to help tech startups planning to “go global” tap into an international network of legal communities. That way cross-border issues — trademark law, for example — can be tackled over Skype at a single event.
Gaffney is hopeful that high-profile law firms will become wise to the PR bonanza to be had by being among the first to support young entrepreneurs through StartEd. Either way, StartEd joins the expanding number of efforts worldwide that provide a collegiate environment where entrepreneurship can flourish.
The next StartEd event is scheduled to be held the evening of Nov. 7 at the ABC at Business Center, Shibuya Higashiguchi Ekimae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (see www.meetup.com/LegalworkshopsTokyo).