Educating Lawyers to Advance Prosperity in the American West
by Stacie Jones
As home to some of the world’s largest global companies, long-standing family businesses, a robust entrepreneurial culture, and a booming metropolitan core, the state of Idaho demands lawyers who have the special expertise to guide sound business practices and healthy economic development.
The University of Idaho College of Law is preparing its students to fulfill this vital role. In August, the State Board of Education approved the college’s new emphasis in business law and entrepreneurism. The emphasis is designed to provide law students at both the Moscow and Boise campuses with the specialized legal skills and practical business knowledge they need to advise clients in such areas as commercial and economic development, choice of entity for the enterprise, and intellectual property and technology.
“This is a very well-thought-out curriculum that is suited to producing attorneys who are well versed in not only the technical aspects of business law, but also how businesses work,” said Michael Satz, associate dean and professor of business law.
Wendy Couture, professor of business law, noted that expertise in business law and entrepreneurism is particularly relevant in Idaho, which recently ranked ninth among all states for its startup activity on the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, a leading indicator of new business creation in the United States.
“When you are looking to start up a company, you need legal talent to assist you with things like what type of entity you are going to establish, how you are going to raise capital, negotiating business and real estate contracts, and protecting your intellectual property,” Couture said.
“What’s exciting about our business law program is that it is designed to train lawyers to help Idaho’s entrepreneurs and to address the specific needs of the startups and small businesses that have such an important impact on Idaho’s economy,” she said.
The curriculum will further prepare students to join the ranks of the many College of Law alumni who contribute to the health of the state’s economy as legal advisors to Idaho’s largest companies. According to the Martindale-Hubbell Attorney Directory, more than 100 College of Law graduates currently hold positions as corporate counsel at companies around the country. This number includes 50 graduates who are working at companies in the state of Idaho.
Dru Nakaya, a 2011 College of Law graduate, sits on Simplot’s in-house legal team.
“As one of the largest employers in the state, Simplot has a great trickle-down effect on Idaho’s economy … a lot of Idaho’s businesses have developed because of the success of Simplot,” he said. “In my role, I can help Simplot continue to reach business objectives and goals that strengthen not only our company but also — through that trickle-down effect — the economic health of the community.”
The new business curriculum is complemented by hands-on clinical opportunities at the campuses in both Moscow and Boise. Through the College of Law Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, students help taxpayers, many of whom are proprietors of small businesses, resolve disputes with the IRS over tax issues. Students also assist Idaho’s entrepreneurs in the formation and startup of job-creating enterprises through the Small Business Legal Clinic.
“The clients of the small business clinic are usually people who are taking their first steps into the business world but who lack financial resources to afford legal representation in the start up phase,” said Lee Dillion, associate dean and director of the Small Business Legal Clinic. “Our students can provide these small business owners with the free legal advice they need to move forward with their businesses, and at the same time students gain the practical lawyering skills to be successful in their own practice, whether it be in a law firm, state agency, nonprofit, or private company.”
Economic Development Clinic
Students provide legal assistance to boost Idaho’s economy through its new Economic Development Clinic, launched in the fall of 2011 at the University of Idaho’s new Boise campus. Students in the clinic help Idaho communities create legal frameworks for job creation and development that is both economically and environmentally stable. Professor Stephen Miller, director of the clinic and professor of law, said that this type of legal expertise is especially important in areas like the rapidly growing Treasure Valley.
“The Boise region alone has doubled in size over the last 20 years. You can’t passively manage that kind of growth; you have to create a forward vision as a community if you are going to continue being a great city,” said Miller, a University of Idaho law professor who specializes in economic development. “Lawyers can often act as the bridge between business, government, and the community to help bring those long-term visions to life.”
The College of Law is not only focusing on the Treasure Valley, however. Last fall, students in the clinic’s inaugural year worked to help officials in Teton County address complex economic development issues facing their community.
During the boom of the last decade, Teton County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Idaho. Situated at the foot of the soaring peaks of the Teton Mountain Range, a few miles over the pass from the tourist town of Jackson, Wyoming, and just minutes from Grand Targhee
Ski Resort, the scenic rural area’s population doubled in just 10 years, thanks to newfound interest from national real estate investors seeking to transform the quiet valley’s agricultural landscape into the newest Rocky Mountain resort community.
County officials welcomed the new investment, approving more than 150 subdivisions. Land was cleared and expensive infrastructure was installed on nearly half of the 6,300 subdivided lots. The county also committed to providing snow removal and other costly services to maintain the new infrastructure, without cost-sharing with the developers or community.
But in the late 2000s, the nation’s housing bubble burst, plans to expand the nearby ski resort were shelved, and the budding development in Teton County came to a halt. Today, when you include the number of lots approved before the boom, the county is left with a massive inventory of more than 7,000 vacant subdivided lots, which has depressed property values and complicated long-term planning in the county.
“The county was excited about the growth, as they should have been,” Miller said. “But there was no thought given to how to phase that development or how to make that development pay its costs.”
“The most troubling long-term result,” Miller said, “was development agreements between the county and developers that did not plausibly account for the costs of infrastructure construction and the ongoing expense of fire protection, police, maintenance and other governmental services to support the growth. One study has indicated that if the developments were built out under current market conditions, the county would incur $15.5 million in capital improvement costs and a $1.9 million annual deficit supporting this infrastructure at its current levels of service. These sums would likely bankrupt the local government.”
“The development agreements created legal obligations that were not feasible in the long run,” Miller said. “Now the questions are: How do you help the county deal with thousands of vacant lots? How do you create a feasible legal structure in which you can have healthy economic development in the community, but do it in a way that is phased and allows operating costs to be provided for as development goes forward? How do you make sure development strengthens the community rather than bankrupting the community?”
Under the direction of Professor Miller, students in the Economic Development Clinic worked to address these questions. The team made multiple visits to Teton County, pored over stacks of legal and financial documents, and interviewed stakeholders on all sides of the issue, from planning staff and county commissioners to multiple developers and real estate agents, even the county sheriff. Last spring, they presented their legal research to assist county officials with future decision-making. They also assisted in drafting both a new development agreement template and legislation to help the county with problematic civil enforcement issues.
“The students did legal research and drafted documents that, given our county’s budget and resource limitations, we could not have completed without their help,” said Angie Rutherford, the county’s newest city planning administrator, and Kathy Spitzer, Teton County’s prosecuting attorney, in a letter to the College of Law. “They seemed to understand the issues and worked to deliver a product that will be helpful for our community. They pushed our department years ahead of what we would have been able to do without their help.”
While the students may have helped put Teton County on more solid footing, the project has a much broader impact on the state of Idaho.
“The greatest long-term benefit of the clinic to Idaho is that the state now has four newly minted attorneys who really understand at a deep level the types of economic development issues that face Idaho’s communities, and who are prepared to address those issues in their own legal practices over the next 30 years,” Miller said.
“Government and business have to work together to make development effective, and Teton County is a great place to learn those lessons, lessons that can be applied all over the state,” he added.
Merete Meador, a 2012 graduate of the College of Law, was one of the four law students who participated in the inaugural year of the Economic Development Clinic.
“I found it very valuable to be able to sit down with an actual client to help them rectify the situation and move forward as a community,” Meador said. “It was an incredible real-life experience that gave me a much stronger understanding of what this sector of law is all about.”
Representation for all
Armed with legal skills, business know-how, practical experiences, and an entrepreneurial spirit, many of the College of Law’s graduates venture out into Idaho’s communities to launch their own practices. Independent firms offer legal services that are often more conducive to the legal needs of Idaho’s small family-owned businesses.
“These attorneys can provide less expensive and more accessible legal representation to the mom-and-pop businesses in the state,” Satz said. “It’s very important, from an economic standpoint, to prepare lawyers who can facilitate all types of business in Idaho — from the small businesses all the way up to the large corporations.”
Professor Satz’ philosophy is related directly to the College of Law’s statewide mission to provide quality, affordable public legal education for the state of Idaho.
“Cost-effective legal education is the key to affordable legal services for Idahoans of modest means, which includes small-business owners and entrepreneurs,” said Donald Burnett, dean of the College of Law.
“What’s more,” he added, “public legal education in both Moscow and Boise enhances Idaho’s home-grown capacity to respond to the increasing demands of globalization and specialization upon business, and upon the practice of business law in our state.”