Matthew Pelkey standing outside.

Vital help for hopeful new businesses

Summer always goes quickly – and for three UB School of Law students, their 1L summer sped by as they immersed themselves in the fast-paced world of entrepreneurship law.

The students worked with Matthew Pelkey ’10, who directs the Entrepreneurship Law Center and plays an active role in Western New York’s startup community. Advising clients under a practice order, they helped entrepreneurs – many looking to commercialize products they’ve developed in the medical field – with how to set up a viable business.

The goal of the fellowship program, Pelkey says, was to introduce students from underrepresented populations to what it’s like to do this kind of transactional legal work. “Sometimes,” he says, “unless a student has been exposed to business or transactional work in some other context, they’re more inclined to self-select to other kinds of work. We wanted to engage the students as much as possible in a meaningful way.”

Working from an office on Buffalo’s burgeoning Medical Campus, the students helped their clients form business plans and stock option plans; worked with them on compliance with privacy regulations; and created basic legal guidebooks that will be made available to future entrepreneurs.

They also got a broad view of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including a daylong visit to the StartFast Venture Accelerator in Syracuse, which connects upstate New York entrepreneurs to venture capital investors. “It provided a lot of context to the issues they were working on,” Pelkey says. “It was really rewarding for me to see how positive an experience it was for the students.”

There were also lunch-hour crash courses on particular issues that startup companies face, taught by Pelkey. “I fully expect them to get an A in Corporations,” he deadpans.

The fellowships – which offered a stipend but no academic credit – were funded through UB’s Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships and Empire State Development.

The program is consistent with the School of Law’s continuing push to broaden opportunities for minority students.

“Starting a new business can be extremely daunting, particularly for women and minorities,” says Tolulope F. Odunsi, the law school’s assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. “Historically, both women and minorities have had less access to capital and less access to opportunities to start and sustain businesses. The fact that our students of color – who have a unique and personal understanding of how race and gender play a role in causing adverse outcomes for minorities and women – have been able to help break the barriers of traditional venture investing for these businesses is outstanding.”

For the students, the practical experience was a win for both their clients and their career possibilities. “In the first year, you don’t get a lot of hands-on experience,” says one of the summer fellows, Kristen S. Fischer '21. “With the clinic you really are doing hands-on legal work. I learned so much this summer.”

The students dealt with a range of business law questions and issues. “A lot of entrepreneurs have technology and engineering experience, but they don’t have any business experience,” Fischer says. So the student lawyers advised them on choosing a type of business entity, worked to create employment agreements, explained the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, and wrote business policy statements. “After a few weeks,” Fischer says, “I could tell how much goes into starting a business.”

She says she went into the fellowship looking to explore the field of entrepreneurship law. And she liked it – she plans to participate in the Entrepreneurship Law Center this academic year, and is thinking about business transactions as a career path. Other summer fellows included Jonathan Abrams '21 and Marc Dudley '21.