In 2018, a small team of entrepreneurs set out to answer a simple yet highly relatable question: How do you build a better workplace culture?

The idea led Tegan Molloy and her two co-founders, Dave Bergart and Rob Goehrke, to start a business, and soon, they had a product, a model and a name. What they didn’t have was the legal foundation necessary to turn the idea into a full-fledged business.

“We were looking for a lot of help to be honest,” Molloy said when asked about those early days. Fortunately for the team, she heard about UW Law’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic (ELC), which provided the final lift needed to get off the ground.

The ELC provides mission-critical, early-stage legal and business counseling to entrepreneurs, small business owners, nonprofits and faculty researchers in the Pacific Northwest. Working with a network of pro bono attorneys and business advisors, law and business students team up to take the lead helping clients bring their ideas to life — which have included everything from ASL-signing robotic hands to diaper bags.

“What’s the line between business and law?” said Jennifer Fan, University of Washington Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the ELC. “You really have to combine both in order to be an effective attorney. We’re there to support businesses and help them to reach the next level. By doing so, what becomes clear is how passionate our students are about representing entrepreneurs.”

The company, Culture Bites, created a product designed to help managers connect and have meaningful experiences with their teams in the form of themed subscription boxes. Each box contains a series of 15-minute activities and exercises for teams that foster a collaborative culture among members in ways traditional trust falls may not.

“We saw an opportunity as people who really care about company culture and how that impacts everyday lives,” Molloy said. “We wanted to make it easier for managers to bring their team together, because not every company or organization has the budget to bring in experts from the outside. This is a way to tap into that collective wisdom.”

The ELC is one of UW Law’s largest experiential learning clinics, with 16-20 students per year. Students take the lead with clients under the guidance of Fan and pro bono attorneys. Fan has cultivated relationships with more than 100 attorneys — some of whom are ELC alumni themselves.

Students identify and address a range of legal issues for their clients. Blake Holbrook ‘19, who recently received both his J.D. and MBA, became Culture Bites’ point person. He said that preparing for the first client meeting he ran was equal parts exciting and intimidating, but after getting a few under his belt, they became second nature.  

 “You’re working with clients with big ideas and lawyers from leading law firms — the ELC puts students in a great environment to step up,” Holbrook said. “We get practice answering our clients’ questions while making sure we’re asking them the right questions to learn as much about their business as possible.

“It’s really fun to develop a rapport with these clients, and it’s really satisfying watching all the pieces of a new business come together.” 

Entrepreneurs from companies like Culture Bites have varying degrees of legal knowledge, Fan said, and until they get to the point of actually turning that big idea into a business, “they don’t know what they don’t know.” 

Common questions include how to protect intellectual property, business incorporation procedures, tax laws, equity allocation, corporate social responsibility and more. Because of the breadth of issues, Fan said that students gain real-world experience with a remarkably diverse range of legal questions.

“Often times clients come to us with a single issue, but instead we give them a holistic view,” Fan said. “I give my students broad exposure to a number of different client types because that’s what makes them better prepared to represent their future clients. It’s also critical for students to learn how to make legalese accessible to people who are not familiar with the law.” 

Amy Chen was a scientist in diagnostic development who worked with the ELC when she was launching Optheia, a company that created a device for patients with eye diseases to take pictures and send to their doctors remotely. The goal was to cut down on the cost patients incur when having to drive long distances to, and often staying overnight for, follow-up visits in Washington’s metropolitan hubs.

Chen says her collaboration with the ELC was instrumental to her success. 

“It’s a really rare and unique resource we have here at the UW. We’re one of the most innovative schools in the U.S., and it shows.”

— Amy Chen

“It’s a really rare and unique resource we have here at the UW,” Chen said. “We’re one of the most innovative schools in the U.S., and it shows. As a young inventor or entrepreneur, you need to take advantage of these resources, and working with the ELC gave me insight into what it’s like to interact and talk with lawyers.”

In Molloy’s case, the Culture Bites team received a $25,000 grant from the UW’s Jones + Foster Accelerator Program and were deep in the hiring process for new staff members by late spring. Over the course of 2019, the company has a number of milestones planned, and its leaders remain emboldened by the knowledge and partnership they received from the ELC and Holbrook.

“I remember it was late one Friday or Saturday night, and Blake called us,” Molloy said. “He told us he had caught an issue in time that otherwise would have cost us; without him we would have never known. It was nice to know he was totally watching our backs.”

Learn more about the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic.