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.

—-

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.

The sharing economy and the law

Last year, when Time Magazine named 10 ideas that will change the world, high on the list was an entirely new concept: ‘collaborative consumption’.

Got a spare driveway? Rent it to a driver using ParkatmyHouse. Extra space in your shed? Let it out via Open Shed. A small job that needs doing? Find someone to do it through Airtasker. Old clothes? Exchange them with Clothing Exchange.

Also termed the sharing economy, the access economy, or the peer-to-peer economy, this new economic model is based on ‘access to’ rather than ‘ownership of’ physical and human assets like time, space and skills.

The ‘sharing economy’ has mushroomed in Australia, and Melbourne in particular has seen a range of initiatives start up.

Back in 2004, Melbourne was among the first to embrace the sharing economy concept with the launch of car-sharing. These days, Melbourne boasts bike-sharing schemes, community-owned energy projects, solar leasing projects, and carpooling schemes for city commuters. Our city rooftops now grow vegetables and host beehives, and the Melbourne City Council is developing other initiatives to encourage a shared use of resources in the city.

Operating in the sharing economy brings multiple benefits: profit, community building, strengthened local economies and reduced waste. But it’s becoming clear that these sharing initiatives also pose major challenges to our legal system.

That’s because our laws are based around ownership of goods, rather than access to them. Our legal frameworks have evolved to regulate established relationships such as employer/employee, landlord/tenant, developer/homebuyer, business/investor and producer/consumer.

The sharing economy often doesn’t fit within these categories. Is a person who spends time tending to a community share garden in return for vegetables an employee? Or a volunteer protected from negligence actions? What is the extent of their contractual rights and obligations?

This has already given rise to legal tensions in the United States. In the US, services like Lyft, SideCar and Tickengo connect individual private drivers with people who are looking for a lift, reducing traffic congestion and the need to own a car. But in many US states, these peer-to-peer car-sharing services are illegal. Last September, California was the first state to legalise technology-based ride-sharing services, providing a regulatory framework for them to operate.

In New York, Airbnb is being investigated for possible breaches of a 2010 law making it illegal to sub-let your apartment. New York City’s Attorney General has filed a subpoena for data on all Airbnb hosts in the city. Peers, an organisation that supports the sharing economy, is currently lobbying New York law-makers to introduce regulations to allow for Airbnb to operate legally.

Similar legal issues are starting to emerge from such initiatives in Australia. Community energy groups are grappling with their incorporation, while initiatives like rooftop gardens are being constrained by planning laws. Food sharers must comply with the same food safety rules as larger not-for-profit enterprises. Despite community support for sustainability projects, overcoming legal barriers is a significant impediment to sustainability projects getting off the ground. However, the need for specialist legal advice comes at a time when many projects do not yet have the capital to pay for lawyers.

The legal and commercial factors sustainability companies need to consider in order to get moving include determining the right legal structure, securing the right legal approvals and licences, developing an effective finance model, raising start-up capital from investors (which may include the community through crowd-sourcing) and offering a service that is in demand, understood by consumers and is simple to use.

Recognising the difficulties environmentally-minded companies face in navigating a minefield of laws and regulations, leading global law firm Ashurst has teamed up with University of Melbourne to establish a Sustainability Business Clinic.

The first of its kind in Australia, the Clinic begins this year and will see law students provide legal advice to start-up companies under the supervision and guidance of environmental lawyers.

Projects that are in the public interest benefit the environment and do not have the capacity to pay for specialised legal advice may have access to the Clinic. It is expected that a broad range of legal issues will arise, spanning environmental, planning, property, corporate, finance, intellectual property and energy law.

It is hoped the clinic will not only help sustainability initiatives get off the ground, but will also equip the lawyers of the future with the practical skills required to advise companies operating in the emerging and rapidly growing sharing economy. If Time Magazine is right, then these skills will certainly be in demand.

——-

This article was co-authored with Katherine Lake and was first published in The Voice.