Q&A with Natalie Banach, Vice President of Business Law Corps

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On March 20, 2012, I had the opportunity to interview Natalie Banach, vice president of Business Law Corps, regarding her motivation for joining BLC, the potential of BLC for the Hawaiian Islands and the clientele BLC services. As the past few months were busier than I expected, this article has been a work in progress for a while.

How did you get involved with Business Law Corps?

I was in my final semester of law school and like many of my classmates I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life after graduation.

A great opportunity to launch a new nonprofit presented itself after one of my classmates, Cat Taschner, now a BLC fellow co-founder, spoke with one of our former professors, Greg Kim. Greg teaches a Small Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic at the William S. Richardson School of Law which allows students to work directly with entrepreneurs of limited means to form their business, draft contracts, protect their intellectual property, etc.

Greg wanted to take that concept and expand it into a nonprofit organization that could help more entrepreneurs. He knew however, that he would need help to actually get things rolling. Greg told Cat and I about the idea and we agreed to help turn his concept into a reality.

Helping to launch a legal nonprofit geared towards entrepreneurs and small businesses really resonated with me because of the great experiences I had both in the entrepreneurship clinic and in my various other internships with startups. I love working with entrepreneurs because they’re passionate and excited about their new business ideas and making an impact.

As a business attorney working with startups you get to come in at the beginning – before problems begin – and help entrepreneurs plan out and protect their business idea. It can be very rewarding.

So when I heard about the idea of a legal nonprofit which would entrepreneurs that couldn’t afford lawyers get that same advice and protection, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.

Why did not you not pursue the typical legal career path?

Personally, I’ve never been one to follow convention. On top of that, there’s a lot to be said for the passion and excitement in the entrepreneurial community that has always been attractive to me.

Sure there is more risk. But no risk, no reward right?

That is not to say I don’t recognize the importance of the traditional corporate law paradigm; it works for a lot of people, especially young lawyers that want exposure to different areas of the law in a very structured environment.

But from my first experiences learning about and working with entrepreneurs, I knew that’s the environment I wanted to be in. When other law students were doing internships at the courthouse, I did a fellowship with the business school and helped consult on intellectual property issues for a small local tech company. When other students did summer stints at corporate law firms, I did an in-house internship with a local gaming company and got to work one-on-one with developers. And now I get to be on the ground floor of a very exciting new nonprofit organization.

I’ve also been attracted to working with the startup community in general because of what entrepreneurs can teach me. Good entrepreneurs take a hard look at the way things work, and then they apply solutions to the problems they see. It’s by coming up with these solutions that they are able to be innovative. I think that’s an amazing skill and one that everybody should learn – especially lawyers.

Working with and helping the entrepreneurial community lets me learn those skills. At the end of the day, I’m doing what I love, I’m learning, and I’m making an impact. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

What do you think Business Law Corps could do for the islands?

I firmly believe BLC can provide an important boost to the small business economy in Hawaii. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how to spur an innovative, small business culture in communities across the United States.

There is recognition that innovation and the next big thing doesn’t have to be cultivated in Silicon Valley.

There are a lot of environmental, political, social, and economic factors however, that have to come into play before that can happen and before a community can become start-up friendly.There’s a lot of conversation about what exactly those factors are. Some entrepreneurs believe you first need a lot of angel investors and the capital to launch new businesses. Others believe you need a strong showing of experienced entrepreneurs to mentor all the up-and coming-startups.

I think the right answer involves a combination of factors including having the support of the legal community.

When you look at the startup culture in Silicon Valley one of the things you realize is that lawyers are usually the first people entrepreneurs see when they’re trying to launch and get investors. The business lawyers in Silicon Valley see all kinds of clients, all kinds of business ideas, and all kinds of venture capitalists. They are right in the thick of things and with all this knowledge – on top of their legal expertise – they can really add a lot of value to a startup. The good ones anyway.

I think having a strong legal community that understands the needs of small businesses and startups is an important asset. I also believe that the BLC can help foster a strong legal community that supports all of its entrepreneurs – even those that don’t have money to hire an attorney.

The BLC is about helping small business owners who can’t afford an attorney launch their businesses properly. By getting legal advice at such an early stage an entrepreneur can ensure their business is formed correctly and can gain credibility by having a lawyer by their side.

The goal is that because these businesses are formed properly, their risk of failure decreases, the chance they are successful increases, and more jobs are created. In fact, BLC’s mission is job creation. If we can help foster successful businesses that grow and expand, that means more jobs for the people of Hawaii.

What kind of clients are you looking for?

BLC helps individuals that are starting new small businesses who can’t afford an attorney. This is clearly a large group of individuals and that works for us. We want to offer our service to as many qualified new small business owners as possible. Whether you are a “mom-and-pop” store, a farming collective, an emerging-growth tech company, a social enterprise, we’re willing to help.

The two factors we use to qualify entrepreneurs are financial need and job creation potential. A BLC applicant has to show they cannot afford to hire an attorney, i.e., financial need. We determine this by asking for financial information such as monthly income and expenses. We take a holistic view, but if we find that a client can afford to hire an attorney then the BLC won’t take them on. We’re not about taking business away from attorneys in town.

In addition to financial need, we also want to see that the entrepreneur has a good idea that will turn into a successful business with the potential to create jobs. To qualify applicants based on these criteria we ask for job protections and a business plan. We then have business lawyers and other advisors look at the applications to determine if they are likely to create jobs in their local communities.

Anyone starting a new business who meets these two criteria should apply to the BLC online at www.businesslawcorps.org.

What kind of clients do you have now that you are excited about?

Well we have one client, a contractor in his late 50s that recently got laid off. As you can imagine in this tough economy it was very difficult for him to get rehired. So, he took an entrepreneurship class and now wants to start his own contracting/painting business. I thought that was really inspiring and he is exactly the type of person BLC would like to help.

We’ve also got a pair of public school teachers that came up with a way to use technology better to give parents updates on how their children are doing in school. What a great solution to a big problem.

Finally, I just spent the weekend talking to a collective of farmers in Waimanalo that want to start an aquaponics business. It is just so inspiring to see all the great ideas that people in Hawaii are coming up with to solve problems.

I really believe that Hawaii can be an important incubator of great problem-solving businesses and a role model for the rest of the nation. I’m excited to help these entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality and ultimately be a part of the solution that turns Hawaii into a model for innovation. It might sound like a bit of a lofty goal, but I’d rather dream big, execute as best as I can, and see where that gets us.

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In the upcoming weeks, I intend to write a series of articles to helping individuals understand the practicalities and realities of a startup business.

Additionally, I will also be speaking at two different venues in the next few weeks regarding startup businesses.

The first venue will be at:

Greenhouse Innovation Hub
685 Auahi St.
Honolulu, HI 96813

The event will be held on July 25 at 6:00 p.m. I will be hosting a discussion regarding basics in contract law with Veronica Picciafuoco of Docracy, a NYC startup. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more info, go to:

http://www.higreenhouse.com/events/basics-of-contract-law-talk-with-docracy/?instance_id=2701

The second venue will be at:

ING Direct Café
1958 Kalakaua Ave.
Honolulu, HI 96815

The event will be held on August 1 from 6:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. I will be discussing the basics of business entity formation. Please stop by to find out about the differences between limited liability companies and corporation and the benefits of selecting certain business entities.