Last fall, Jana Kovich JD/LLM ’15 uncovered some challenging tax questions in the course of doing a valuation of her client’s enterprise in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic. The client was planning to change its organizational form, and Kovich realized the value of the owner’s equity interest in the company could potentially expose him to an unnecessarily heavy tax burden.
After making sure she understood the parameters of the problem and discussing them with Clinic Director Jeff Ward ’09, Kovich called Geoff Krouse ’97, a partner at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. Krouse is one of Kovich’s clinic mentors, thanks to an ongoing partnership between his firm and the clinic, and she knew he would help her gain greater insight into the matter. In fact, Krouse put her in touch with a tax specialist at Smith Anderson who gave her “a very thoughtful answer,” and also offered subsequent guidance as she worked through alternative solutions until the problem was satisfactorily resolved.
“Geoff and the Smith Anderson attorneys were so useful in our quest to get to the right deal and in making sure we were informed,” said Kovich, adding that they offered general advice in the absence of a direct relationship with her client. “They helped me understand how different scenarios can work. That advice was incredibly useful as we tried to figure out what would work best for the client.”
Smith Anderson has provided something that no law school clinic can provide on its own — a close connection to the legal professionals that serve our community’s entrepreneurs.”— Clinic Director Jeff Ward ’09
At the start of each semester, Ward and his students have a working lunch at Smith Anderson’s Raleigh office. Each student is matched with one partner and one associate who will serve as mentors for the semester. Students can call on their mentors for advice and input on challenging legal questions, as Kovich did, or reach out for more general insight on forging a career in the entrepreneurial sphere. Kovich, who will join Latham & Watkins in Chicago following her Duke Law graduation, said getting to know Krouse and associate Jessica West T’05 allowed her to start building her professional network.
“Now that I have a better idea of where my career is taking me and where my practice interests are, I think having these connections will be helpful should I want to refer someone to an attorney in the Triangle or even to move back someday,” said Kovich, who had lunch with her mentors last fall. “And it was enlightening to hear from them what their daily practice is like.”
Since Krouse and Smith Anderson associate Peter Bosman helped forge the relationship between their firm and the clinic in 2013, dozens of their colleagues have stepped up to volunteer their time and expertise. “Smith Anderson has provided something that no law school clinic can provide on its own — a close connection to the legal professionals that serve our community’s entrepreneurs,” said Ward, noting that they have even joined students for such off-campus events as the students’ presentations to local tech entrepreneurs at Durham’s American Underground and Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Academy.
“It’s been fun for us,” Krouse said of his firm’s connection with the clinic. “We’re really just sharing what we do on a daily basis.” Krouse, whose practice includes mergers and acquisitions, private equity, and securities law, said students often reach out to their mentors in search of answers that aren’t easily found through library research, but that practitioners in the firm’s specialty practice areas have encountered in their work. “I think that’s the value we add: Based on experience, we can help stream- line the questions for which they need to get answers from their clients, and then point them in one direction or another depending on what their business objectives are.”
Reaching out for help and clarification on issues is what his firm coach’s associates to do, he added. “We tell them to talk to their fellow associates, to their partners, and to their clients — directly, not just through email. You often find that if you talk through it, you can come up with a different result, or cut out some unnecessary steps towards a solution.”
Kovich credits her work in the Start-Up Ventures Clinic — and helping her client resolve his tax problem — with giving her confidence and stronger counseling skills as she heads into practice. And she is grateful for the assistance of Krouse and his colleagues in this regard.
“I haven’t found many opportunities to have a practicing mentor outside of my law firm,” she said. “I’m grateful that Smith Anderson has given its time and resources to our program. It strengthens us.”