Within a few days of consulting with some University of Notre Dame law students and local lawyers, Cathy Dietz Photography in South Bend became a limited liability corporation (LLC) instead of a sole proprietorship.
After consulting with Mendoza College of Business students, Dietz added "experienced" to her Web site qualifications and attracted more customers in a market glutted with startup, cut-rate photographers. Meanwhile, the students gained insights from this non-textbook case to enrich their education and prepare them for careers.
Cathy Dietz was one of seven small business owners who benefited this spring from an expanded community outreach that offers both legal and business advice to local entrepreneurs. The combination of law and business comes naturally to student Deepak Madala, who initiated the collaboration. Madala will earn both an MBA and a JD this year, after completing a four-year, dual-degree program.
Last year, Madala approached the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies staff about expanding its microventuring program to engage law students and address legal concerns.
"Our courses focus more on litigation," says Madala. "So here we could gain experience in the transactional side of the law and use what we’ve learned to help small business owners."
At the same time, business students were encountering clients’ legal issues that they were not equipped to address, says Melissa Paulsen, instructor of the microventuring course that pairs students with small local companies that are established but still struggling to become profitable.
"In the course of the first couple of years, we were seeing a lot of legal issues," including leases, back taxes or payroll issues, Paulsen says. "Business owners can’t focus on their business if they’re concerned about a legal matter."
Madala and Paulsen worked with Bob Jones, director of Notre Dame’s Legal Aid Clinic, and Jay Lewis (ND ’86, JD ’91), chair of the St. Joseph County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, to recruit local attorneys to volunteer in the effort.
The 33 business and 24 law students and the 14 attorneys were organized into seven teams, each paired with a business.
After initial joint meetings, the business and legal sides worked separately to advise the clients—business students on such issues as marketing, finance and inventory; law students on government regulations, leases and taxes.
Ultimately, says Paulsen, the law-business partnership is not only an academic exercise. "So many small businesses fail. We want to help these entrepreneurs more than tread water. We want to help them thrive and potentially grow," she adds.
Cathy Dietz says it worked for her. She had heard of the benefits of forming an LLC but thought it would be a lengthy process.
"To have all these students study your business, it couldn’t come at a better time because of the recession," she says. "With the LLC, my understanding was there was less liability to us as a family. It seemed to be a perfect project for them to work on because they knew exactly what to do."
—Gene Stowe is a South Bend-based writer.