NYU Law embraces training to advise socially minded businesses in the emerging field of law and social entrepreneurship.
BY LINDA SANDLER
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LESLIE HART
ILLUSTRATION BY SEBASTIÉN THIBAULT
On an April afternoon, Assistant Professor of Clinical Law Deborah Burand is exuberant about the day’s seminar in her International Transactions Clinic. Her students, divided into groups, are about to engage in mock negotiations concerning the formation of an impact investment fund with lawyers from the Social Impact Finance group at the law firm Reed Smith. It isn’t just the thoughtful and complex questions the students ask that are energizing Burand; it is the promise, she says, of a generation of lawyers “doing good by doing deals” in an area of law that did not exist a decade ago.
Burand, who brought her groundbreaking expertise in this space to the Law School in 2015, knows better than anyone that the time is right for law and social entrepreneurship. “Millennials are part of a generation that wants to make its mark in this world,” she says. Market research bears this out: According to a 2017 survey conducted by consulting firm Deloitte, three-quarters of millennials believe businesses have the power to solve social problems, and 2016 Economist Intelligence Unit research revealed that a whopping 93 percent think social impact is key to their investment decisions, describing the generation as “blurring the lines between investment and philanthropy, seeking investment opportunities that will have a positive social impact on communities around the world.” As this trend has become more evident, says Burand, “there is a growing interest in reimagining the role law schools can play in advancing the field of social entrepreneurship and impact investing.”
In a modern, global business climate, private and government investors are showing more interest in social enterprise—commercial endeavors that support the well-being of people and the environment—in a variety of geographic and legal spaces. And it appears that good works are good business. The Global Impact Investing Network, which tracks money going into socially beneficial projects, counts $114 billion in assets currently under management by the more than 200 fund managers, foundations, banks, family offices, pension funds, insurance companies, and government-backed development finance institutions who responded to this year’s Annual Impact Investor Survey. With a convincing majority of respondents reporting that their expectations were met or exceeded for both the impact (98 percent) and financial performance (91 percent) of their investments, it is unsurprising that those surveyed plan to invest another aggregate $25.9 billion in 2017.
Just as today’s law students are being drawn to work with social entrepreneurs and impact investors, there is a need for skilled legal advice in this rapidly developing field. Increasingly, lawyers are hired to advise corporate clients on social, governance, and environmental issues, but few law firms have specialties in social finance and social entrepreneurship in the same way that a growing number of international banks do. “We will have more US law firms developing practice groups in social impact finance,” says Professor Helen Scott, who co-directs the Mitchell Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business. “It’s a growing phenomenon.”
NYU Law is a pioneer in this field, launching the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship—the first center of its kind at a leading law school. “Social entrepreneurship is very much the kind of thing NYU Law is suited for,” says Scott, who co-founded the center with Burand, “because it combines business law with a long-term focus on the public interest.” Dean Trevor Morrison agrees: “The Law School has a proud tradition of innovation. We are excited to be able to prepare students for work in a field that not only will be rewarding to them, but also will provide much-needed guidance for social entrepreneurs as they navigate unfamiliar or uncertain legal spaces.”
Endowed by Jay Grunin ’67 and Linda Kalmanowitz Grunin ’67 and the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation (see sidebar), and partnering with Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs, the center serves as the home for Burand’s International Transactions Clinic (ITC) as well as Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law Stephanie Abramson’s Business Law Transactions Clinic (BLTC)—both of which have attracted great student interest. The Grunin Center also supports the expansion of NYU Law’s offerings of classes, fieldwork, clinics, and seminars, combining traditional training in corporate, securities, and tax law with specialized classes like Law & Business of Social Entrepreneurship and Financing Development, and reading groups focused on community development and micro finance, among other specialties. And it embraces student-run organizations, such as the Social Enterprise & Startup Law Group (SE-SL), founded in 2009, and other student-led initiatives in the area.
This includes the work of Shawn Pelsinger ’09, LLM ’10 and Robert Esposito, who were both Jacobson Fellows in Law & Social Enterprise at NYU Law during the 2013–14 academic year. Seeing that lawyers and entrepreneurs were scrambling to keep up with proliferating laws applicable to the field, they harnessed their shared knowledge of the emerging areas of social enterprise law, big data, data visualization, and interactive maps to put together the Social Enterprise Law Tracker. It allows entrepreneurs and legal practitioners to keep up with the most current information about social enterprise by visualizing the changes in relevant laws across the US. Sponsored by NYU Law and NYU Stern School of Business, the tracker also gives information on specific legislation and displays an animated timeline showing the increasingly rapid progression of state actions nationwide. Going forward, the Grunin Center will involve the SE-SL in maintaining, updating, and expanding the tracker.
These endeavors illustrate the Grunin Center’s mission to improve the legal systems that affect social entrepreneurs and to extend NYU Law’s leadership role in this field through three key initiatives: knowledge creation, knowledge dissemination, and community building.
As part of its commitment to advancing a community of legal practice, the center partnered last spring with the Impact Investing Legal Working Group (IILWG)—a professional network of lawyers representing numerous organizations—founded by Burand, SE-SL co-founder Aaron Bourke ’09, and other lawyers. Together, the Grunin Center and IILWG convened at NYU Law more than 250 lawyers from around the globe for the center’s inaugural conference, “Legal Issues in Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing—in the US and Beyond.” They came from law firms, foundations, international and domestic financial institutions, government agencies, impact investment firms, social enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and universities. Conference participant Madison Ayer, chairman of Honey Care Africa, which partners with small farmers in an East African honey-and-snack business, speaks to the need for more and better legal advice in this arena, a sentiment echoed by many attendees: “As things are now, 50 percent of my time as CEO is spent on structuring deals and devising the right capital structure. It’s hard to change things for the better, and this takes time away from doing the investing.”
Attendees also agreed that there is a strong need for more training in this field at law schools. NYU Law and the Grunin Center have already begun addressing that need, building a network of well-trained lawyers specializing in social enterprise work. For the second year since the ITC’s launch at NYU Law, attorneys in the White & Case New York and Paris offices have collaborated with students to provide legal support and advice to a faith-based institution that is in the process of making its first impact investment. And several alumni, including Bourke, who also co-founded Reed Smith’s Social Impact Finance group, returned to campus to help with the ITC last spring.
Next year’s conference is poised to expand its reach: In a post-conference survey, the overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that they were “very likely” to recommend the conference to others and offered positive feedback. Acclaimed one attendee, “[W]e have created an amazing community—unlike any other I have seen in the legal field.”
Says Burand, “Effective lawyers will find ways to work within the rules and unlock opportunities for entrepreneurs and impact investing. Lawyers are also key to developing new rules.”
SYSTEM-CHANGING IDEAS TO SERVE THE COMMON GOOD
From a Seed of Interest to Global Growth
Keren Raz ’10 first became interested in how the law interacted with social enterprise during college while in Asia studying economic development. “I became fascinated by the way businesses were coming up with innovative solutions to solve problems,” she says. “That brought me to law school with a goal to get more explicit training in social enterprise.” Once at NYU Law, Raz spent a year surveying demand for a student organization in the field. “I thought there would be a community like that, but I learned that in the legal field there were few who even knew about social enterprise,” she says. “Once students knew, they wanted a group.”
After more than 100 people showed interest, Raz, today an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Bourke, then a 3L, started the Law & Social Entrepreneurship Association (now SE-SL) with like-minded peers. “Every social entrepreneur needs a good lawyer, and we wanted to build a community of those lawyers to serve those who want to make the world a better place,” she says.
Bourke became interested in the area following a volunteer position at the Foundation for Sustainable Development in India, where he worked on a project to start a youth center in Udaipur, Rajasthan. “After that, I thought I would do training in the field,” he recalls. “I felt I needed concrete skills if I wanted to make a change in the world. NYU Law had a reputation as a good school focused on public interest. It also focused on international law, which I was interested in.” At the Law School, Bourke found a setting where he could explore these themes with fellow students, and learned of companies that were tackling social and economic problems in developing countries. “It sounded like a win-win approach to social enterprise,” he says.
Still going strong today, the SE-SL helps to train NYU Law students for roles in social innovation, entrepreneurship, and venture capital by coordinating educational events, career panels, and networking opportunities. The group also partners with outside organizations like Ashoka to provide pro bono legal services to entrepreneurs, allowing members to gain valuable lawyering experience.
“The student group helped to build momentum, and I’m very proud to see so many students now able to build expertise in social enterprise,” Raz says.
Joyce Chang ’17, who served as SE-SL co-chair for two years, traveled with the group to Morocco and Cambodia to meet with local entrepreneurs and forge connections for the future. Now headed to Cooley in San Francisco to apply her skills in support of startups, social enterprises, and nonprofits, Chang underscores the importance of law schools taking notice of this movement: “As someone who attended NYU Law specifically because I had an interest in pursuing social entrepreneurship, it is really exciting to see that in three years the school has secured funding, set up a center, and charted out a vision forward because they noticed that it was a trend.”
The strong community of support that has developed fosters diverse perspectives and ways of entering and operating within the field. Peter Egziabher ’17 had a pre–law school résumé that included US congressional intern, Google account recovery specialist, and management consultant for a $7 billion technology hub outside Nairobi, Kenya. American-born Egziabher, whose family is from Eritrea, entered law school with the goal of launching a fund to invest in African startups. “I have a strong interest in venture capital, and I’ve observed that many leading venture capitalists are former attorneys,” Egziabher notes. “Yet it’s very diffcult to envision a path from law school into venture capital, mostly because it’s not a traditional field for an attorney to enter.” At NYU Law, he adds, “I was exposed to areas beyond my own conception of what a lawyer or a businessperson could do.”
With the SE-SL group, Egziabher was able to travel to South Africa and participate in the Cambodia trip as well. “What SE-SL gave us Americans who had not been to Cambodia,” he says, “was a language of social enterprise that allowed us to connect to social entrepreneurs on the ground there.”
Back at home, Egziabher served as a co-founder of the NYU Law Venture Capital Group as a way to pool resources and gain entrée into the New York City venture capital community. He credits the faculty and administration for their support in “plugging into the alumni network as well as the broader business community in New York City.”
Next steps for Egziabher, who says he is “primarily interested in how technology can advance social change,” include a voter registration fellowship with the Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. After that, he has options: “NYU Law has given me a strong legal foundation so that when I pursue work either as an investor, an entrepreneur, or as an attorney, I will be able to understand some of the core challenges that social entrepreneurs must face.”
Where Profit Meets Purpose
Redefining the Bottom Line with the Business Law Transactions Clinic
Stephanie Abramson, who co-directs the BLTC, can think of many moments when her students felt they made a difference. One recent deal was particularly gratifying for them: the launch of a bakery in Brownsville, Brooklyn, by three women through a not-for-profit venture capital firm dedicated to creating commercial growth in underserved neighborhoods.
“There was no commercial hub in the vicinity, and the women wanted to start a bakery that also had a place for community meetings,” says Abramson, who is also the director of Law and Business Experiential Classes and a Law School trustee. “Students worked on the operating agreement, lease, and employments contracts, and they had to negotiate with very able counsel for the venture capital investor. It was very satisfying for them to see it launch.”
Her popular clinic provides students with the opportunity to develop analytical, planning, editorial, and counseling skills in the context of client projects and reality-grounded classwork. They learn about a business lawyer’s multiple roles in assessing, planning, and managing corporate transactions. Among other things, that involves gaining familiarity with legal documents as business communications and learning how to communicate complex legal concepts, factual matters, and tactical choices in simple, concise, organized, and understandable ways.
For Michael Fahner ’17, whose assignments included advising a sustainable candlemaker that uses some of its profits to help support the distribution of solar lamps to communities in need, the experience gained in the clinic was invaluable. He credits it with helping prepare him to succeed as a first-year associate with a Big Law firm.
“One of the great things about the clinic is an opportunity to work with practitioners who have years of experience,” says Fahner. “You’re paired off with professors who have seen all kinds of deals. As you begin your career, you can avoid rookie mistakes because you’ve already experienced some of these deals with the helping hand of these mentors.”
A Virtuous Circle
Crossing Borders to Make a Better World with the International Transactions Clinic
A mutual interest in discovering a way to create a new type of partnership model in East Africa led Galen Welsch and Randy Welsch to conceive of their social franchise company, Jibu, which brings safe drinking water to underserved urban communities. Galen Welsch, featured on the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, came to the space after working at a Moroccan hospital during a stint with the Peace Corps, where he grew frustrated with its dependence on donations.
“I felt the best way to bring changes is to root things locally, and I started thinking, ‘How can we partner with local entrepreneurs?’” Because he was planning a franchise operation in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, he needed a way to ensure quality controls at the franchise businesses setting up shop with Jibu’s filtration systems and water bottles. That was when he turned to NYU Law’s ITC.
Launched by Burand in the fall of 2015, the ITC provides an opportunity for students to supply legal services to such clients—mainly social enterprises and impact investors—that are conducting cross-border transactions in emerging markets. ITC students, Burand says, “are doing international transactions with a level of complexity you see on Wall Street. Moreover, they’re learning to handle these issues in countries where the legal environment is uncertain.”
Welsch is quickly expanding Jibu with ongoing advice from the ITC. “I’m enormously grateful for Deborah, her students, and her clinic. The students established the nuts and bolts of our cornerstone agreements,” he says.
Shreyas Kale JD/MBA’17, one of the students who worked with Jibu, experienced as a child what it is like to lack direct access to clean water when he traveled to rural India for months at a time to visit his grandmother. Boiling drinking water despite 100-plus-degree heat was a fact of life. Because of this awareness, he found the experience to be personally fulfilling as well as an opportunity to learn about the challenges of franchising a company and enforcing safety protocols.
It is precisely this combination of business acumen, legal expertise, and social conscience that is defining lawyers in the emerging field of law and social entrepreneurship. Kale, a former Bloomberg and IBM software engineer, is confident that his dual law and business degrees have prepared him well for his future work in patent law at Baker Botts in Washington, DC. He credits the client experience and interaction he gained through the ITC with helping him to “build a better business and legal practice moving forward.” In the growing field of social entrepreneurship, Kale is sure NYU Law initiatives will make a difference: “We’re creating lawyers to be able to give back to the local NYU community and the broader society.”
Jay Grunin ’67 stood at the front of classroom 216 in Vanderbilt Hall last February, addressing the faculty, students, and members of the administration gathered to mark the room’s dedication to him and to his wife Linda Kalmanowitz Grunin ’67 in recognition of their generosity. By establishing the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship at NYU School of Law, the Grunins have ensured that the Law School can bring appropriate focus and commitment to this burgeoning area of practice.
As students also stood and described the work they did through the clinics the center will now support, it was clear that these endeavors have meaning for their own lives and career directions in addition to promoting positive social change around the world. And though the formal launch of the center was still months away, this small ceremony had deep significance for the Grunins, who met in the classroom more than 50 years ago. Jay joked that he was lucky to draw the interest of one of the only 10 women in their class of 300, but he also described the real connection they developed, finding ways to “accidentally” encounter each other for increasing periods of time in the break between their respective classes held in the space. The plaque that now hangs in room 216 honors their romance as well as the philanthropy their partnership ultimately engendered, growing what Jay refers to as their “mom-and-pop” law practice at the Jersey Shore in Toms River, New Jersey, to a successful firm and expanding their interests to include real estate and other investments.
Jay elaborated on the importance of the center—and of giving back—at its inaugural conference in May, describing when he and Linda “realized the time was right to do something for the Law School, which was so instrumental in giving us the training and mindset to be the kind of lawyers we had only dreamed of becoming.”
He continued, “It is the audacious hope of Linda and myself that social entrepreneurship becomes a major sector of the law with elements combining both public and private law. A legal sector focused on social impact, which in turn would increase the scalability of sustainable solutions to some of the world’s largest and seemingly intractable challenges, is certainly an endeavor worthy to aspire to.”
Linda Sandler is a freelance writer and editor, often focusing on financial and investment. She previously worked at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.
Children photo: JIBU/Andy Berndt
Posted September 1, 2017