Future Lawyers Learn about Opportunities for Social Entrepreneurship

New York, April 30, 2009 Eager to use his skills as a product engineer to benefit communities in Africa devastated by land mines, Bart Weetjens devised a way to safely detect these lethal reminders of past conflicts. Animal lover Weetjens, inspired by watching dogs search for buried explosives, discovered that the light-weight African giant pouched rat could be taught to sniff out and disarm land mines more cost effectively, with no harm to the animal whatsoever.

Columbia Law School students who attended a recent symposium on “Social Entrepreneurship and the Law” learned about this unusual project from speaker Scott Rechler, who works for Ashoka, a global social-change organization and an early funder of Weetjens. Rechler and more than 2,000 colleagues who are associated with Ashoka seek creative solutions to social and environmental problems, and Ashoka ensures that the most promising ideas get developed and sustained.  

The inaugural symposium was hosted by Law Students for Social Enterprise, founded by Omar Haroun ’11 to raise awareness of social enterprise career opportunities available to students after graduation. According to Haroun, "The beauty of social enterprise is that its message— to think outside the box in ways to make the world a better place—resonates with not only students who plan public interest careers, but also students who plan on working at a firm or in government.”

Ironically, the flailing economy may have opened up more ways than ever before for lawyers to become involved in social enterprise, says Professor Raymond Horton, who directs Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Program. Horton described social enterprise as an umbrella concept that encompasses the public and non-profit sector, international development, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, and social entrepreneurship. Ashoka is one of many organizations actively seeking young lawyers to do pro bono work for their entrepreneurs.

Benjamin Stone of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP is one such lawyer. Stone, a fourth-year associate at Orrick has taken a leave of absence to work as general counsel at Indego Africa, a small company that helps women in Rwanda become economically independent through sales of handicrafts. He is now on a two-year externship where he manages the legal responsibilities of running both the non-profit and for-profit arms of Indego. His work will be supported by a first-year associate from Orrick.
Opportunities like these, says Stone, are a way for new lawyers to get experience handling tax issues, drafting contracts, and doing other types of work that associates might not get to do at a large firm until much later in their careers. 
Pro bono opportunities were just one of several careers in law that the symposium explored. Tracy-Elizabeth Clay, general counsel for Teach for America, also spoke about her transition from being an associate at a large firm to working for an organization with a social mission.
As general counsel for an organization with an operating budget of $150 million that is growing exponentially—by 2015 it’s on track to be a $450 million entity—Clay says that she gets “to be the person who helps [Teach for America] navigate in our new skin.”
As the organization grows and changes, Clay is not required to be an expert in every legal issue that arises. But she does have to be a “high-level issue spotter”—something she says that her law firm experience prepared her for well. 
In the final analysis of the day, Professor Barbara Schatz, who moderated the discussion, urged students not to wait for opportunities in social enterprise to come to them. Instead, she said, students should take their cue from the panelists and seek out opportunities for themselves, the way Weetjens did with “hero rats” trained to detect mines.

Haroun is confident that his peers will heed that advice. “Judging by the enthusiasm of those who attended our symposium," he said, "I think it is safe to say that Columbia is on its way to producing a new generation of lawyers who are as committed to solving some of the world's problems as they are to their own success as future lawyers."
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, criminal, and environmental law.
- Reported by Tamara Bock