Entrepreneurial ventures in business and law

Professor Lawton infuses business and entrepreneurship into the law student experience

Julie Lawton
Julie Lawton is an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Housing & Community Development Legal Clinic at DePaul.
Buzzwords like “interdisciplinary,” “experiential” and “entrepreneurial” come to life in impactful ways for DePaul law students in Associate Clinical Professor Julie Lawton’s coursework and clinic.

“I have a background in business and I’ve always had a love of finance,” explained Lawton, who practiced law in the financial services group of Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., for a number of years before transitioning to academia in 2003. “I wanted to incorporate that background, knowledge and expertise in my teaching to help students prepare for the practice of law, and specifically, being a business lawyer.”

After teaching in Georgetown Law Center’s clinical program, Lawton brought her expertise to DePaul’s College of Law in 2011 and established the Housing & Community Development Legal Clinic for second- and third-year law students. The clinic is rooted in the kind of interdisciplinary and experiential work that she believes is crucial to their overall development as business lawyers.

Legal business

In spring 2015, Lawton started offering the Business Fundamentals for Law Students course, intending to provide law students—particularly the ones who want to go into business law—with a foundation in business basics.

“A number of law students come into law school with a humanities background,” she explained, “often with an intense aversion to math and business. Those of us who practice business law recognize that, to be a business lawyer, it is helpful for the lawyer to have at least a basic understanding of business concepts and how businesses operate.

“[Business Fundamentals for Law Students] provides students with a basic overview of financial statements, financial analysis, corporate valuations, [etc.],” Lawton said. “So while business lawyers don’t have to calculate corporate valuations or draft financial statements, they do need to understand what they are, how they are used and how to interpret them.”

While this new course is a model of interdisciplinary student learning, Lawton’s legal clinic takes interdisciplinary to the experiential level.

Lawyers-in-training

“Think of a legal clinic as a medical residency for law students,” she said, “[allowing] second and third-year law students the opportunity to practice law with real clients with real legal issues while they are still in law school. So they register for the class as part of the curriculum and they spend a year working in my clinic … providing legal counsel to clients.”

Lawton explained that the Housing & Community Development Legal Clinic “provides transactional legal assistance to companies working in real estate and affordable housing, and recently began to expand into providing legal assistance to small and mid-sized businesses. This allows us to provide experiential learning opportunities [for] our law students who are interested in not just the specific area of real estate, but also those who want to have experiential learning business law opportunities and who want to work with businesses.”

Arielle Einhorn (JD ‘15) worked in the clinic in 2013-2014 with two clients, a low-income housing cooperative and one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit affordable housing development and management corporations. Now, a research analyst for commercial real estate services firm Jones Lang Lasalle, she credits the clinic for providing both the legal knowledge and the connections to help her begin her career. She also said the clinic helped reinforce self-awareness and responsibility, as well as the importance of balancing classroom learning with practical experience.

“Often, as a law student, I focused strictly on the learning portion of my work; for example, getting the course reading accomplished,” Einhorn explained. “Beyond performing as a student, throughout the clinic, I was taught to perform as a professional and maintain the standards of an attorney.”

Entrepreneurial expansion

The clinic’s latest venture offers law students an opportunity to gain professional experience in the area of entrepreneurship.

Lawton recently connected with Dr. Harold P. Welsch, a faculty member and founder of DePaul’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, sponsored in part by the Coleman Foundation, in the Driehaus College of Business. He discussed with her the foundation’s, and thus, the center’s goals of expanding student entrepreneurship training to university students outside of the traditional business school curriculum. “[The center] works to encourage entrepreneurship not just in business students, but in nonbusiness students who might not initially consider self-employment upon graduation,” Lawton said, suggesting, “What about the student who is learning psychology? How can we help prepare [her] for opening a small psychology practice? Or what about the student studying public relations? How can we train [him] to open a small public relations firm?”

As part of a collaboration with the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, Lawton was named a Coleman Faculty Fellow in the 2015-2016 academic year and introduced entrepreneurship training for law students through her clinic. Now, students in the legal clinic represent entrepreneurial businesses referred by the center.

“[The collaboration] provides our law students with an experiential learning opportunity in business that they did not have before,” she said. “It represents an expansion of our business offerings to meet student demand for more courses to prepare them for the rigors of business law practice.”

Law student Tanya Garrett participated in the clinic this past year and said she gained great exposure to the practice of business and real estate law. “[The clinic] really helped me understand the needs of a small business. It also gave me the real-world experience of interacting with clients and helping solve their problems.”

“Obviously interdisciplinary learning is an important aspect of student learning,” Lawton said. “It’s important for law students to understand that their voice as a lawyer is not going to be the only voice in the ear of a client. The client is going to have advice and considerations from the PR team, the marketing team, the compliance team and the legal team. So having all of [the Coleman Faculty Fellows] work together … and think about how to integrate these different disciplines and entrepreneurship training in the education of our students in our different disciplines, I think is particularly important.”​​