W&L Law students help start up local businesses

By Simona Radeva

A new partnership between Washington and Lee School of Law students, the Walker Program and a Richmond-based law firm is helping entrepreneurs kick-start their Lexington businesses.

“Many of us start small businesses without a clue about things like trademark or whether I should be an LLC or a sole proprietorship, or anything like that,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, project coordinator for the Walker Program, which was founded in August 2020. Its goal is to establish four to six businesses owned by people of color in Lexington, Buena Vista, or Rockbridge County by December 2021.

Wilkinson said the program has already funded four businesses, including the Inspired to Enhance beauty salon which is already open. The group will soon announce three more startups.

Boosting Black-owned businesses

Previous programs in Lexington also helped launch small businesses, such as Main Street Lexington’s initiative Launch Lex. However, there was never a focus on directly benefiting the black community.

According to the 2019 Annual Business Survey, about 18.3 percent of all U.S. businesses are minority-owned. The numbers for Lexington are even lower.

“All of North Main Street was black-owned businesses,” Wilkinson said. “Then you fast forward to 2017 and the last one shut.”

The Walker Program has been successful in addressing that issue. But it hadn’t really specialized in legal training until now.

Carliss Chatman, an associate professor at W&L Law and member of the Walker Program advisory board, first came up with the idea to get her law students involved in the program.

“You just can’t put a value on working with human-beings instead of hypotheticals,” Chatman said.

After dividing her 18 students in three groups, Chatman paired each group with four to five businesses from the Walker Program. Each group has a supervising attorney from Vinson and Elkins law firm.

“We’re still students, but we’re the ones raising issues for our attorney and recommending solutions for our clients,” said Halley Townsend, a student in Chatman’s class. “Then once our attorney approves the solutions, we’re able to actually advise our clients.”

Students learn legal and life skills

The students offer advice on issues such as trademarks, licensing and liability. Chatman thinks that in addition to putting those skills to practice, students also learn things like empathy, patience and how to explain complicated legal concepts to laypeople.

“I think it’s been really rewarding for the students because they truly have clients,” Chatman said. And these are clients “that are in businesses they can go see in town.”

Prof. Carliss Chatman, Washington and Lee School of Law. Photo from Washington and Lee website.

Townsend said that all of their supervisors treat the experience “as much like the practice of law as they can.”

But the students are not the only ones benefiting from the exchange of information and experience.

“For the businesses it’s about intervening early and giving them legal advice early,” Chatman said. “People don’t hire lawyers until it’s too late and they don’t think they need a lawyer.”

“The legal framework can be one of the most costly and difficult to navigate aspects of starting up. I hate to think that someone with a great business would be stalled by legal roadblocks,” said Harry Tanzola, another student in Chatman’s class.

There are significant financial challenges that small businesses face when it comes to legal fees, as well as funding their business in general. Chatman said that a lot of small business owners still have day jobs and can’t afford to run their business full time.

“The hope is that with the grants they can transition to working full time and hopefully, eventually being an employer in town,” Chatman said. “It’s an economic generation pipeline.”

Future growth for the program

The Walker Program gave out their first round of grants in January of this year and the second round a few weeks ago.

Chatman would love to see more people involved in the project, including undergraduate students.

“We’re trying to think of more ways that our students can get engaged with the community not just as consumers, but as members,” Chatman said, “and get to know people in the community on a deeper level and not just on a transactional level.”

The Walker Program expects their third cohort of business training to start in January. Chatman plans to then give her students more clients.

“We hope that this will set up a long-term collaboration between the W&L Law School and the local business community,” Wilkinson said.