Written by: Carolyn Elefant
How Technology Enables Social Entrepreneurs and the Lawyers Who Represent Them
Not only does this month's Xemplar, Kyle Westaway, focus his law practice representation on social entrepreneurs, but he is one himself, having co-founded and served as director of Biographe, a sustainable style brand that employs and empowers survivors of the commercial sex trade in Southeast Asia. Yet, while Westaway's dual role as a lawyer and entrepreneur is unusual, his involvement in the social entrepreneurship sector is not entirely unique as I discovered in researching the topic for this article. It turns out that social entrepreneurship - basically, the business of using business to focus on and solve social problems rather than simply generating shareholder profits - is a rich and thriving sector that occupies the intersection of corporate and nonprofit law.
According to Wikipedia, the term "social entrepreneur" was first used in the 1960s and 1970s, but became more mainstream in the late 1990s as the concept was adopted by large technology companies or their founders - notably, Pierre Omidyar who created eBay and Cisco.
Social entrepreneurship, in turn, has spawned its own body of law because existing paradigms don't apply to the social entrepreneurship's for-profit/nonprofit rubric. Think about it - basic Corporate Law 101 teaches that corporate entities exist solely to earn profit for shareholders, while nonprofit entities are precluded from generating profit at all. Without a new form of legal business entity, as advocated in this article, social entrepreneurship falls between the cracks in the law.
Thus, in response to legal changes, a veritable cottage industry of lawyers like Kyle Westaway who specialize in the law of social entrepreneurship has emerged. Moreover, social entrepreneurship has captivated the new generation of lawyers, as evidenced by a course on social entrepreneurship at Stanford, a social entrepreneurship clinic at the University of Washington Law School and a Law and Entrepreneurship Society at NYU.
But it's not just policy changes or the Occupy Generation's renewed interest in social equality and justice that drives the growth of social entrepreneurship law. Technology is pivotal as well. Whereas once a lawyer couldn't have expected to eek out a living representing fledgling, socially conscious companies that survive on a diet of grants and angel investment at least starting out, technology has substantially reduced the costs of starting and running a law practice. Solo lawyers can now avail themselves of the suite of tools described in Nicole Black's piece which once required several thousand dollars of investment. Likewise, solos can save money by operating a virtual law practice on platforms such as LexisNexis Firm Manager™ or VLOTech developed by Stephanie Kimbro, our first Xemplar and her husband. Moreover, because many social entrepreneurs do business all over the world (including a company like Kiva.org which provides microloans to small businesses globally), lack of an office and the availability of a client portal is an advantage that provides more flexibility rather than a drawback. As a result of these changes, solo lawyers who represent social entrepreneurs can charge less without going out of business.
If this past year of Xemplars has taught us anything, it's that by using technology, solo lawyers really, truly can have it all. Stephanie Kimbro and Kelly Phillips Erb achieved professional prominence and work-life balance through technology, while David Mills and Alan Gura achieved the equivalent of the big law brass ring - a trip to the Supremes - without the concomitant hassles. Most of all, as Kyle Westaway and the social entrepreneurship movement show, today's lawyers have the opportunity to do good, but to do well at the same time.