From the law to entrepreneur

By Rachel Hewitt

A growing crop of MLS graduates are launching start-ups, building successful businesses and social enterprises, redefining the limits of where an MLS qualification can lead.

The breadth of skills developed through MLS has proven to be a strong foundation for budding innovators and entrepreneurs, demonstrating the broad value of a legal education.

Abigail Forsyth (BA 1993, LLB 1994) worked at Tucker Pietrzak Solicitors for four years before deciding to start her own business in 1998. Inspired by the model of British sandwich shop chain Pret A Manger, Forsyth and her brother Jamie founded a local version, Bluebag, opening six stores across Melbourne.

“I still remember saying to mum and dad at 28 ‘I’m going to open a sandwich shop with my brother’ – I think they could have just killed me,” she says, laughing.

“My father owned his own business, my grandfather owned his own business, so it’s in the blood I think.”

While running Bluebag, Forsyth became concerned about the volume of waste produced by disposable coffee cups, with the business churning through close to 3600 cups across its outlets on any given day. Determined to nd a sustainable alternative, the Forsyths decided to design and manufacture an on-the-go reusable cup. It would be the first of its kind to replicate the sizes of disposables, making it suitable for barista-made coffee. In 2008, they launched KeepCup and the company now sells its range of customisable, reusable cups in 65 countries. It employs 38 people, and has 35 distribution partners globally and of ces in Melbourne, Los Angeles and London.

Forsyth says her legal background was immensely beneficial as she built and grew her business.

It certainly gives you an enormous amount of confidence in your ability to logically track through problems,” she says. “Knowledge of the legal system and risk management is baked in. A law degree provides great perspective on the system in which businesses operate.

MLS cultivates entrepreneurship through its participation in the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP). Launched in 2012, MAP nurtures a group of 10 start-ups each year through its Startup Accelerator program, providing $20,000, office space, structured mentoring, networking and pitching opportunities.

MAP Director Rohan Workman says there’s an economic imperative to recognising the value of entrepreneurship. “Start-ups are generating more new jobs in Australia than any other companies,” he says.

“If we want to enjoy the prosperity into the future that we enjoyed in the past, then we need to think about the sources of how that prosperity will be generated. It’s not going to be from your traditional industries, it’s going to come from new companies, new industries and the industries of tomorrow.

“It’s really important for us that the Law School is involved in MAP and the reason for that is you have a bunch of really bright, analytical thinkers coming through.”

More than 100 MLS students have participated in MAP initiatives since the start of 2015, and in that time 11 students and alumni have also applied for the Startup Accelerator program.

William Brown and Andrew Justo are 2015 Melbourne JD graduates selected to participate in this year’s Startup Accelerator. The pair, who both completed commerce undergraduate degrees, met in the first few weeks of the JD. They quickly became friends and in 2014 co-founded Allume Energy, a social enterprise committed to providing low-cost clean energy for low-income households and renters. The company is focused on solar energy and grid sharing and is currently undertaking a trial project in social housing in Narromine, NSW.

“It was always a small project but MAP has actually given us a runway to build a bigger vision,” Justo says. “We’ve had the opportunity to talk to people we would never have gotten in a room with.

We’re now looking at partnering with a number of social housing organisations to explore solutions ... across portfolios of assets that are way bigger than we’d ever imagined. It’s given us something to really chase.

The pair’s legal training enables them to keep tasks such as drafting and reviewing contracts in-house, and helps them navigate legislative issues and regulation.

“We wouldn’t have been able to navigate the renewable energy sector and how it relates to transaction structures, property and ownership rights anywhere near as well without the degree,” Brown says. Justo agrees, saying the ability to understand regulatory frameworks was “mission critical” for their enterprise.

While students at the Law School, Brown and Justo also had the opportunity to work through regulatory questions for their business with the Sustainability Business Clinic, which Justo says was “incredibly helpful”. Sustainability Business Clinic is a unique JD clinical subject offering specialised legal assistance to small, start-up community and social enterprises that work in the public interest to improve environmental wellbeing.

Justo says starting a company after completing a law degree is “quite confronting because it’s not the same as the traditional route of doing a clerkship, then going to a big  firm. It all rests on your own shoulders and so it’s exciting and scary at the same time.

But, he says, the opportunity is “phenomenal”.

“If we can actually build something, that would be a dream come true.”

Banner image: Abigail Forsyth

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 16, October 2016.