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Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic supports Pa. businesses

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From bridal shops to board game stores to metal-roofing contractors, over 1,400 small businesses across 64 Pennsylvania counties have received legal support from the Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic (EAC) in the past year alone.

Staffed with 24 law students and three full-time supervising attorneys, the EAC provides no-cost representation to startup and early-stage companies throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, both in-person and virtually. The clinic is based at Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank, which is one of 21 LaunchBox and innovation spaces located across Pennsylvania that make up the LaunchBox & Innovation Network, a signature program of Invent Penn State. The EAC quickly became a critical service provider for the network, which provides entrepreneurs with coworking, mentorship, and business accelerator programming in addition to access to other state-funded economic development partners such as the PA Small Business Development Centers (PA SBDC), Ben Franklin Technology Partners, and more.

“The EAC supports small businesses that would not otherwise have access to legal services,” said Tom Sharbaugh, professor of practice at Penn State Law and director of the EAC. “By working with Invent Penn State, we became embedded in the statewide entrepreneurial ecosystem, and are delighted to extend our reach to every corner of the state, ensuring these small businesses get the legal services they need, when they need it, to be successful.”

Sharbaugh added that “the EAC’s mission is to help small businesses that cannot afford to hire lawyers — businesses that would attempt do-it-yourself solutions on the internet or simply defer legal protections that are available.”

Armstrong County local Mackenzie Kijowski, owner of MK Bridal & Special Occasions LLC, is one business owner who credits the EAC, in partnership with the SBDC, for helping get her business off the ground.

Wedding and event planner Kijowski felt something was missing towards the end of 2022 after a year of medical issues. She started working on purchasing the pre-existing bridal shop inventory in the beginning of 2023, and by the end of April 2023, she was moving the then-Johnstown based business back to her hometown of Kittanning.

“Downtown Kittanning Incorporated (DKI) had posted online asking the community what kind of businesses they want to see downtown,” Kijowski said. “I commented that I was looking into bringing the bridal store back, and the response from the community was incredible. I got messages galore, and that really lit the fire for me to make it happen.”

In preparation for MK Bridal’s grand opening on July 17, the business received the following support from the EAC and the SBDC:

  • A law student from the EAC met with Kijowski in March 2023 to review the business documents she already had to make sure they complied with applicable legal requirements. The student then drafted Kijowski an operating agreement for her LLC and a tux rental agreement.

  • PennWest Clarion SBDC consultant Jason Strohm helped Kijowski draft her business plan and connect with local banks to apply for business loans.

Kijowski said since the opening, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, with bookings through September, several walk-ins, and individuals thanking her for bringing the business back to the community.

“The SBDC and the EAC laid the path of where I needed to go, which helped me tremendously,” Kijowski said. “I think I would have gotten lost in the shuffle trying to do it all myself. The EAC and the SBDC team helped me know what my next steps were and provided me with the resources I needed to get the doors to my shop open.”

Director of the PennWest Clarion SBDC Cindy Nellis said SBDC business consultants advise their clients that, when making important decisions for their business, it is critical to connect with three specific professionals: accountants, insurance agents, and attorneys. However, some of these services come at a cost that not all early-stage business owners can afford, and therefore often forego, putting their business at risk.

“At the SBDC, we can tell them about legal documents, but we can’t give them specific legal advice,” Nellis said. “That’s where the EAC truly does enhance our work, because they provide no-cost services, and instead of referring clients out to someone whom they have to pay for their advice, we say, you can connect with the EAC, and they can give you that guidance at no-cost. That’s why it’s truly a resource that we love to refer our clients to and a partnership we are thankful to have.” In the past year, the EAC has achieved the following:

  • Representation of over 1,400 new clients throughout 64 Pennsylvania counties

  • Formation of 600 companies plus 14 non-profit organizations

  • 39 webinars and other educational presentations

  • Participation by 24 law students per semester plus 12 over the summer

  • Expansion of referral base to over 90 economic-development organizations in Pennsylvania

“We are honored to play an integral part in the greater Invent Penn State entrepreneurial ecosystem, and hope we can continue to grow our staff and extend our reach,” Sharbaugh said. “We believe early-stage business owners deserve access to the legal expertise that will significantly reduce risk to their business, allowing them to positively contribute to the local economy for much longer.”

About the Penn State Law Clinics Penn State Law offers two cost-free legal clinics to Pennsylvania entrepreneurs — the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic (EAC) and the Intellectual Property Clinic (IPC) — both of which are staffed by law students who work under the supervision of full-time lawyers. The IPC provides IP services related to patents, trademarks, trade secrets and copyrights. The EAC offers counseling, document drafting and negotiation assistance to startups and small businesses that otherwise would be unable to afford traditional legal assistance.

Although physically located at the Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank in downtown State College, the EAC serves all of Pennsylvania through videoconferencing.

Potential clients who are interested in obtaining services from the EAC should submit an intake form. This program is supported by Invent Penn State, a commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation and student career success.

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