Business survey results tell the same story every year: Stanford University alumni are among the world’s leaders in terms of founding companies and securing venture funding. And it’s not just Stanford grads who are making their marks as entrepreneurs. In every conceivable corner of the campus, on any given day, professors, students, and others affiliated with the university are pondering how to get their big idea to market.

Increasingly, and in line with national trends, the startups that have Stanford as part of their origin story are focused on tackling pressing environmental issues or reimagining products or services through the lens of sustainability: green buildings, carbon capture, sustainable clothing, and so on.

All of these nascent companies and their founders have one thing in common – aside from their Stanford connections. They need legal advice. A new small-group, experiential course at Stanford Law School (SLS) is providing just that.

Startup Law: Sustainability, conceived and co-taught by lecturers Molly Melius, JD ’10, and Sam McClure, JD ’17, takes a win-win-win approach to teaching SLS students about what it means to be a lawyer for a sustainability-focused startup. After ramp-up time in the classroom, six students work in teams to support five to eight Stanford-affiliated startups. Overseen by McClure and Melius, the students get real-world experience as they help counsel the founders on a broad range of issues most startups face, from incorporation to intellectual property assignment to equity allocations.

“Many of our students choose Stanford Law over other law schools to learn about the startup ecosystem, so it’s important for Stanford to provide students with an experiential course that allows them to work with startups,” said Robert Bartlett, the W. A. Franke Professor in Law and Business and an advisor to Startup Law: Sustainability.

The founders, in turn, benefit from pro bono legal assistance and help getting their environmentally savvy ideas off the ground. And ultimately, everyone can benefit from the creation of new companies focused on saving the planet.

Startup Law: Sustainability launched in fall 2023 and is now in its third quarter. The course is offered in fall, winter, and spring quarters with new cohorts of students and clients in order to meet law student demand and provide a consistent resource for Stanford founders. In addition to the hands-on advisory work, students hear from guest lecturers and participate in a “model corporation” simulation in which they practice representing a typical startup during its first two years of existence.

A first-of-its-kind course

According to McClure and Melius, there is no other course like Startup Law: Sustainability at any other top-tier law school.

“In terms of working with very early-stage companies in the sustainability space, where students earn course credit and work hands-on with company founders, this course is unique,” said McClure, who worked for startup-focused law firm Gunderson Dettmer after graduating from SLS and went on to co-found a consumer technology company.

Bartlett said the course is part of broader efforts at SLS to expand offerings in the areas of startups and venture capital. “Teaching students how to navigate the multifaceted and often unpredictable issues raised by startup founders is simply not amenable to a conventional classroom setting,” he said. “A hands-on class like this lets students delve into the truly unique challenges that lawyers face when advising very early-stage companies.”

Five years ago, approximately 10% of the venture-funded companies with Stanford ties were climate- and sustainability-focused, estimates McClure. “Now that number is closer to 30 or 40%,” he said. “There’s been a huge shift toward this area, and it’s in part because of the launch of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and programs at the Graduate School of Business and elsewhere on campus that have created new opportunities and funding for climate companies. It is clear that Stanford is the place to be for people who want to work on climate.”

Melius said the opportunity to “build connective tissue across Stanford and the alumni community” is a critical aspect of the course. “Interdisciplinary collaboration is what is going to solve pressing global problems. And what better way to do that than with the full Stanford community?”

From algae farming to circular fashion

The companies Melius and McClure have selected to participate in their class so far include one focused on carbon capture, a solar company, an algae farming company, even two in the fashion space: one developing artificial intelligence modeling to reduce waste in the manufacturing process and another using a circular production model for making jewelry. “The founders we work with come from all corners of the campus,” Melius said, “from the School of Engineering to the Graduate School of Business to the School of Medicine.” Melius also serves as the program manager for SLS’s Environmental Natural Resources Law and Policy Program and runs Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy, an SLS initiative composed of law firms that provide pro bono services to green startups and nonprofits.

“We take a broad view of what it means to have a Stanford affiliation,” Melius said. “You can be a founder who is many years out from Stanford, a student, a professor, a staff member. What we are looking for are inspiring founders and great ideas that have the potential to move the needle on climate and sustainability. Of course we are also looking at whether the kind of legal and strategic advice the companies need is something we can provide in the space of a quarter.” Founders of both for-profit and nonprofit entities are eligible to participate in the class.

Katie Mansur, JD/MS ’24, took the course the first quarter it was offered and worked closely with the founders of a company in the building decarbonization space, as well as Working Trees, which pairs land stewards with climate funding and develops phone-based sensor technology to measure the carbon stored in trees. “The class has made me really excited to practice law,” said Mansur, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in environment and resources through the Doerr School of Sustainability and is slated to join Wilson Sonsini’s Energy and Climate Solutions Group after graduation. “It was a great opportunity to learn about ground-level issues that hadn’t occurred to me, such as everything that goes into naming a company, and it gave me the chance to observe the personal dynamics of the founders and to see how lawyers can add value beyond providing legal advice.”

Working Trees co-founder and geophysicist Aakash Ahamed (PhD ’22) is equally effusive about his experience on the opposite side of the table from Mansur and the other students. He founded Working Trees with John Foye (MBA/MS ’22) and Leif Gonzales-Kramer (BS ’20, MS ’21) in late 2021. “Beyond helping us on legal matters, the students have truly been thought partners on a higher level,” Ahamed said. “As founders with a lot to handle and a lot to juggle, having people who can provide not only a recommendation, but the rationale for why you would want to go down a certain path, is super valuable. They have saved us so much time – and money. They ask great questions, have incredibly valuable feedback, and they go above and beyond their legal calling. They are really interested in us as people and in the success of the company at large.”

For student Jerry Zhu, JD ’24, the most valuable aspect of the course was the opportunity to learn “how much of being a good lawyer is about cultivating business skills, like the art of how to most effectively communicate with busy founders.” Zhu, who will join the corporate practice at law firm Cravath in the fall, said that often means digesting many pages of dense material into succinct, actionable pieces of information. “We spend a lot of time at law school learning about the law, but the interesting thing about practicing law, at least when you are advising companies, is that a lot of it is about learning how to navigate relationships and being a good business advisor.”

For more information, including access to the application form for company founders, visit the Startup Law: Sustainability website.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.