Professor John Coates’ Legal Start-Up Case Studies Inspire Students

by Rachel Gibson

“I want to inspire students to start organizations and conquer the world.” – HLS Professor John Coates

Professor John Coates, a regular contributor to the Case Development Initiative’s catalogue, is developing a module of three case study series that highlight the challenges of starting new legal organizations.

Designed for Professor Coates’ Legal Profession course, the case studies illuminate the commonalities all start-ups face, despite the sector. The module will include case studies from the hybrid public/for-profit sector, the public sector, and the private sector.

“Start-ups in different sectors of the legal economy face common issues, namely, how to survive when resources are scarce, the financial constraints that shape the functioning of the organization, and how to cope without the organizational controls that come with time and funding,” explained Professor Coates.

Professor Coates believes this module of cases could prove beneficial to instructors in a variety of settings, including professional ethics professors, students and instructors participating in legal clinics, and executive education courses for current legal practitioners.

The first series, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady A and B  explores the formation of a New York law firm that handles a mix of commercial litigation and public interest cases. Workers’ Rights in the Hudson Valley A and B focus on two lawyers who branch out from a legal non-profit to start their own public interest firm. The third series, currently in progress, examines the challenges involved with opening a for-profit legal organization.

When taught in his Legal Profession course in the Fall 2012 semester, the student response to the Workers’ Rights series was very positive. In a course of 50 students, “around 10-15 students ranked this case in the top three,” Professor Coates stated. The case series also sparked conversation amongst students about the public legal sector. “The students that are passionate about public interest lawyering sometimes know a lot more about the sector than I do,” explains Professor Coates, “Using case studies like these to spark a dynamic class discussion can really engage students to learn, not just from the professor, but from people in the class who have experience in the field.”

“Challenges for Legal Startups”

For a law student, the path to the public sector can be daunting. It’s difficult to find public sector jobs, let alone ones that could sustain a recent graduate trying to pay back student loans. “There is a lot of interest in non-profit and public sector work amongst law students, but for various reasons, they may not go into it at first and keep this passion on the back burner,” said Professor Coates. “Students often opt to work at a corporate firm for a few years and once their loans are paid off, they are able to pursue their public interest work.”

These cases can raise students’ awareness of the many paths available to them as they pursue their careers and encourage them to consider the challenges and rewards of starting their own organizations. This module of cases addresses the factors that motivated the founders of each organization to leave the corporate sector.

The unique combination of these cases taught in the classroom helps Professor Coates inspire students to “start organizations and conquer the world.”

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About the author: Rachel Gibson,, is the Case Development Initiative Program Coordinator

About Lisa Brem

Lisa Brem is the Case Studies Program Manager at Harvard Law School.
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