PUBLISHED:October 31, 2014

Learning to navigate the world of entrepreneurship: Students hope LLMLE program helps launch their careers

Nicole Simpson says Duke Law’s “startup boot camp” forced her to think like an entrepreneur.

Simpson, who received her JD last May from Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law, is one of 17 attorneys pursuing Duke’s LLM in Law and Entrepreneurship (LLMLE).

“We basically went through the same process, in a very condensed version that startups at the American Underground go through,” she said, referring to the downtown Durham incubator for early-stage ventures. "The process helped me conceive of what being an attorney for a startup company would be like.”

Simpson and her classmates spent their first week of the fall semester learning how to craft goals and propose action plans. Working in teams, students used a strategic planning tool, The Business Model Canvas, to draw up ideas for potential key partners, resources, and revenue streams for their startups.

The group has since been immersed in coursework detailing the ins and outs of business strategy, financing, and advising entrepreneurial clients, among other subjects. That’s allowed Simpson to further hone her career aspirations; she plans to pursue entertainment or business law with a focus on mergers and acquisitions or venture capital. She says she appreciates being pushed by Professor Kip Frey ’85, who directs the LLMLE program, to set specific goals.

“He said he didn’t want the program to be just another year of law school,” says Simpson. “I’ve found that to be true.  It’s not at all like the Socratic classroom method of law school. And I learn best through experience – I can’t wait for the spring practicum.” All LLMLE candidates work directly in or for a startup or related operation such as a venture-capital firm, government agency, or law firm in the program’s second semester.

The opportunity to gain experience in the practical aspects of corporate law is also what piqued Will O’Brien’s interest in the LLMLE as he was completing his JD studies at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“Through the program I’ve had opportunities to talk with people in the Startup Factory,” he says, referring to another incubator where entrepreneurs can access seed money and mentorship. “Just meeting and hearing about everything other entrepreneurs are doing and coming up with plans and ideas to help them is exciting. It’s really cool to see all of these growing companies and to be around that kind of energy.” It’s also experience that will serve him well when he returns to Chicago to launch a media startup geared toward millennials.

For EJ Johnson, who plans to practice corporate law in New York following his Duke graduation, brainstorming with his classmates is as much an LLMLE highlight as the rigorous coursework. 

“They’re what make this class so much fun,” says Johnson, who received his JD in 2013 from Michigan State University, where he also played football as an undergraduate. “Everyone’s not cut from the same quilt. One of my classmates also has his MBA – he’s already started successful businesses. You just learn so much from everyone’s backgrounds. Everyone has an opinion and that always makes for a lively discussion.”

Bryan McGann is the business owner Johnson mentioned. In addition to an MBA from Campbell University, a JD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a PhD from Walden University, he brings a wealth of practical experience to his LLMLE studies:  He is a senior attorney and litigator at Smith Anderson in Raleigh and has achieved entrepreneurial success as the creator of Pill Pockets a pet treat designed to aid medicine delivery. And along with other business ventures, McGann has recently launched a startup focused on developing his recently patented orthopedic brace for post-surgical patients who will benefit from remaining upright in bed.

For McGann, obtaining an LLM in Law and Entrepreneurship at Duke represents his commitment to lifelong learning.

"Being a lawyer is something special, and to be associated with such a great law firm is an honor. Being an entrepreneur is also something special and tremendously gratifying,” he says. “The opportunity to come to Duke and study law and entrepreneurship under this accomplished faculty has rekindled my interest in one day teaching these subjects. My classmates will use their Duke LLMLE to vault themselves into prestigious positions in law and entrepreneurship, but I’m kind of doing it the other way around. In my career, I have been blessed with many opportunities to gain practical experience, and now with the LLMLE from Duke, I look forward to the next challenge, whether in law, teaching, or perhaps politics.”