PUBLISHED:August 20, 2010

Katherine Tsai ’10

Katherine Tsai ’10

As a 3L enrolled in Duke’s Community Enterprise Clinic, Katherine Tsai ’10 spent much of her time working for two new education-oriented nonprofits. She says she was rather surprised at how exciting it was to work with a startup enterprise.

“You have discrete legal issues to help with, but there’s so much more,” observes Tsai. “People starting out have to figure out how best to structure their organization, how to make everything work, so you function as a lawyer, a counselor, and part of a team.”

The Community Enterprise Clinic, directed by Clinical Professor Andrew Foster, provides clients with the legal services needed to plan, develop, and implement strategies to build and protect wealth and assets, create jobs, and promote sustainable development in low-wealth communities, while providing students like Tsai, the opportunity to get real-world legal experience.

In Tsai’s case, that experience consisted of drafting legal documents to help nonprofits get the correct tax status, and close client contact that she believes will be helpful when she starts work at Davis Polk’s New York office in November.

“Just having that personal contact with a client and learning how to communicate and develop teamwork is the kind of thing that will be immediately applicable when I start working,” she says.

One of Tsai’s clients, Innovation for Motivation, offers two-weeklong educational programs during the regular breaks in Durham’s year-round public school calendar.

“For the first session, they targeted kids who need extra help. They teach students subjects they wouldn’t normally get in school, like the history of modern music after the jazz era, or dissecting lamb brains, or learning about statistics –– subjects they wouldn’t normally be offered,” says Tsai, who worked with the organization’s founders, Amy Cummings and Rachel Stine, to lay a solid legal foundation as they developed the pilot program.

“A previous clinic student got them a fiscal sponsorship, which is an alternative path for new nonprofits, and I helped draft liability waivers, release forms for parents, and memorandums of understanding with the Durham public school system and their current fiscal sponsor,” Tsai says. Cummings’ and Stines’ excitement about their work was inspiring to her as a lawyer, she adds.

“It’s hard not to feel excited when you’re working with people who are really passionate about helping others,” she says.

Contagious enthusiasm left Tsai similarly eager about her other educational nonprofit client, Zomppa, another organization that needed Tsai’s help establishing non-profit legal status.

Zomppa uses food as a vehicle to teach children about health, diversity, and environmental responsibility.

“Zomppa’s founder, Dr. Belinda Chiu has a background in international relations and education and her idea is to teach kids about food and the global issues surrounding food,” Tsai says. “They’ll have a bus that they call a ‘food atlas on wheels’ and they’ll take it to the farmers’ market or to a school, and teach units on different topics.

“A unit on corn, for example, would include global warming issues surrounding the growth and harvesting of corn, how different cultures use corn — sort of the interconnectedness of all the different issues surrounding food,” Tsai explains.

Tsai hopes for the opportunity to take on pro bono projects at Davis Polk that mirror her clinical work at Duke Law. “At Duke, the clinical work was refreshing, and it helped me re-energize for my academic pursuits,” she says. “I’m hoping that pro bono work at Davis Polk will be just as exciting and help drive my career.”