As more up-and-coming entrepreneurs look to launch a business in metro Detroit, they’re scrambling for time, money, and resources. But emerging owners may ignore protecting their intellectual property rights, assuming such safeguards require an expensive team of lawyers. Most recently, Wayne State University Law School in Detroit is changing that by working to make those services available for businesses on a limited budget. Alumnus Liz Sussex, the supervising attorney for the new Wayne Law Group, explains the nonprofit’s services for local emerging entrepreneurs.
1. DDN: How did you get involved with the Wayne Law Group?
I’m an employee of Wayne State University Law School, and I’m the senior program officer for PEBL (Program on Entrepreneurship and Business Law), which is a section of clinics that serve entrepreneurial and business clients. Services are provided by students and overseen by lawyers, in this case, myself. Within PEBL, an incubator group was formed, comprised of associate lawyers that are Wayne Law School alumni that are in their first couple of years of practice. From this group, we formed the nonprofit, Wayne Law Group. It’s purposes and goals are twofold: One is for the firm to provide a residency and an apprenticeship where young associates can have hands-on training in the provision of business entrepreneurial legal services and business advice, as well as learn how to start their own firm, run a business, or run a law firm that’s a business. And the second goal is to provide low-cost services to Detroit entrepreneurs that are trying to launch businesses and need legal services, but at the same time are working with very lean budgets. Our client base spreads to any Detroit area entrepreneur in need of these types of services.
2. DDN: What are you seeing in terms of the startup climate in Detroit?
We’re seeing a revitalization, just everything coming to life, expanding outward with hundreds if not thousands of small businesses in all different areas — tech, non-tech, and food services. While (startups) may have different business goals, they have some common issues initially. One is their lean operations, and a lean budget. The second that almost any business has in common is the type of business analysis and the fitting of the appropriate legal services to set the business up correctly. For example, (we work with entrepreneurs) to pick the proper corporate entity they might form to protect their intellectual property and to put the right infrastructure in place so that the business isn’t likely to run into potholes along the way. (And if they do run into potholes they) can afford them.
3. DDN: How does the Wayne Law Group help entrepreneurs?
As you can imagine, IP services are typically quite expensive and they compete with the other needs of the business in terms of who gets resources and what gets attention. We’re trying to fill that gap. The Wayne Law Group also has an affiliation with Bodman (a law firm in downtown Detroit). If you think in the bigger picture, (Wayne Law Group’s) capacity is somewhat constrained. The students work on a few matters and a few clients as projects provided by the attorney, but that leaves a host of dozens if not hundreds of entrepreneurs that cannot be accepted into the clinic. They can avail themselves of our services, and from there, they can move onto Bodman, or other firms we’ll partner with, for expanded services. Also, we’re collaborating with CPA Global, a provider of IP management software and services. They’re providing their FoundationIP software at no cost to the Wayne Law Group that helps up to manage IP information, reducing the time and cost burden for both our associates and the entrepreneurs and start-ups we help.
4. DDN: Why are intellectual property services important?
There are certain statutory requirements that are meant to protect IP, especially early on. One of the basic requirements in terms of obtaining a patent in the United States is that the invention cannot be publicly disclosed, even to one person for more than one year. It can’t be up for sale. So it’s often really good for an entrepreneur to be able to take stock of what they want to protect with patents and ensure they have the proper non-disclosure agreements and the aid in place, or they have a patent application on file because pretty soon they’re trying to fund the business. You see people trying to look for technical resources perhaps to build their product or develop their software and it’s imperative that the product is not disclosed and they’re able to maintain their market advantage.
5. DDN: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs just starting?
Entrepreneurs need to have it in the front of their minds to have a plan and a strategy to seek legal advice on how to respect the rights of others and how to decide what IP to protect that will bring the value to their business and then go from there. With respect to respecting the IP rights of others, that advice goes to being aware of the name that they’re choosing for their business, the brand and the trademarks they’re choosing — that these aren’t already taken, and that they’re not registered as trademarks and they’re not registered as business names. Typically that involves performing a search and doing an analysis of the results. And of course, you can kind of see a pattern there that extends to copyrights they may be using and things of that sort. Second thing, in terms of a little more complex piece, is deciding what to protect that will bring value to their business. At the end of the day, the IP is used to support a business strategy and business goal — it isn’t the strategy in and of itself. Looking at where the business goals are and where they hope to be, where are they going to market, where do they think their markets will be, how close is the competition, and mapping out a very clear strategy on what should be protected and when it should be protected. That, in turn, allows them to project a budget that’s reasonable with respect to their IP expenditures.
For more information about the Wayne Law Group, visit WayneLawGroup.org