Sharing Melbourne and the Sustainability Business Clinic

This is a short roundtable presentation I gave at the Sharing Economy Leaders Forum in Melbourne on 29 May 2014 in which I introduced the Ashurst Australia / Melbourne Law School Sustainability Business Clinic to a band of sharing economy enterprises and enthusiasts.

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The Sustainability Business Clinic will be the first law clinic set up within Melbourne Law School for the law school’s Juris Doctor students. While this clinic will be new for Melbourne Law School, it builds upon a much longer tradition of clinics in law schools, especially in the United States. In the US there have been efforts to incorporate experiential learning and practical learning in the form of clinical programs for decades.

With the shift at Melbourne Law School to a post-graduate law programs the importance of clinics has been emphasised – with students now taking typically three rather than five years to complete their studies. Students want to pack as much practical leaning into their programs as they can to make sure they are job ready by the time they graduate.

For those of you unfamiliar with law clinics, they are essentially small student populated law firms on campus. Upper year level law students get to use their legal skills and knowledge in a practical setting. Their work is overseen by and supported by experienced lawyers and teachers. The legal service the students offer is provided free to worthy clients.

Within the Sustainability Business Clinic, students will be supervised by lawyers from the global law firm Ashurst, and I will provide the learning framework and supervision to the students.

This year the clinic is running in semester 2 (from July through October) from Melbourne Law School at The University of Melbourne Parkville campus. Eight students will work for eight or nine clients one day a week over 12 weeks.

All of Melbourne Law School’s experiential learning offerings are centred around the objective of advancing the public interest and Ashurst’s involvement builds upon its ethos and commitment to provide pro-bono (that is: free) legal service to worthy clients. The Sustainability Business Clinic has a mission of public interest interpreted through an imperative of sustainability.

Melbourne Law School and Ashurst hope to assist through the clinic businesses or community or non-profit entities that are supporting or leading our transition to a sustainable future through enterprise. For us the sharing economy is an expression of sustainability. So, we are aiming to help business like you: businesses that are thinking creatively about how we, as a community, can share rather than consume, to build more robust and networked communities and improve our environmental well-being. The enterprises we will support might be hoping to turn a profit, or not, but aside from their sustainability objectives what will be common among the clinic clients is that they will not currently have the capacity to pay for specialist legal advice.

Our first tranche of clients are sharing businesses, disruptive business, social enterprises and community co-operatives. They are all taking business initiatives without and before the development of policy support and (sometimes) laws that support or guide their activities. They are all in the formative stages of the evolution of their businesses.

The clinic will help clients in various legal aspects. Starting out, advising on permits or consents, traversing a sometimes complex or uncertain regulatory environment, and preparing standard documents. Our goal is to offer legal assistance for discrete legal questions to many clients, not to build long term lawyer-client relationships. There are emerging law services that can offer those long term relationships once business are up, running and able to afford to pay for legal services.

To best suit the skills of the students who will occupy the clinic, we have asked our first clients to think about legal problems that require thoughtful legal research rather than legal strategy; tasks that will allow the students to develop drafting skills and encounter different types of legal documents.

There is a bit of give and take involved. In exchange for free legal service, we want our clients to interact with, be appreciative of and encouraging of our students. We hope that people like you see the value in giving students practical training – particularly in the areas of law and legal documents that your industries want to see developed further. Moreover, we hope that clients will see the benefit in being involved within an institution – The University of Melbourne – that wants to analyse and research emerging trends in society. That is keen to help shape opinions about the sharing economy, among other sustainability matters, and to critique the laws that affect new, dare I say ‘green’ businesses attempting to do good for the public.