From left to right: Eamon Gallagher, Class of 2013; Chris Manchin, Class of 2014; Lauren Strebel, Class of 2014; Joel Ruffino, Class of 2014; Justin Metz, Class of 2014
Law students sit around a massive table in a spacious conference room, listening closely and scribbling notes as prospective investors pepper entrepreneurs with questions about their ventures.
Think “Shark Tank,” minus the make-up and TV cameras, plus dozens more potential investors, and you’ve got a picture of the Keiretsu Forum Mid-Atlantic meetings that several business-minded law students attend every month.
The forum’s Mid-Atlantic chapter is part of a global network of venture capitalists and “angel investors,” who give entrepreneurs the funds to establish or expand their businesses.
“We are the 800-pound gorilla in the angel investment community,” said Howard Lubert, area president of the Keiretsu Forum Mid-Atlantic.
The students learn a lot by hearing the questions of investors on the cusp of committing their hard-earned money to untested ventures.
“If you’re going to represent entrepreneurs, you need to know what the investor’s mindset is,” said Joel Ruffino, a rising 3L who helps screen proposals entrepreneurs hope to present at the monthly meetings as a Keiretsu due diligence fellow.
Through the fellowships, students gain a unique perspective on business transactions, said Patrick Bello, a Class of 2012 alumnus who helped launch the program during his 3L year with Lubert.
“You’re learning about deals from more than just a legal perspective, you’re understanding them from a business point of view,” Bello said. “It’s getting that alternative perspective that’s really unique.”
At a late-winter forum gathering in a boardroom at Woodcock Washburn LLP, several students who are Keiretsu fellows listened as entrepreneurs sought funds for projects including an online charity gift market, an aortic valve bypass and a computer keyboard to pair with mobile devices.
Based on the investors’ interests, the fellows will later work with the financiers to conduct due-diligence research that will guide decisions about which ventures to fund.
The work is providing valuable experience, Ruffino said.
“I’ve met with a number of attorneys who are impressed with what we do,” he said. “Literally, they’ve told me ‘you’re doing what my first-year associates are doing.’”
The law school is exploring ways to strengthen the relationship with the Keiretsu Forum so that more students have opportunities to benefit from the experience.
In the meantime, those who have worked as fellows see clear benefits.
In a particularly difficult job market, fellows have experience that can set them apart, said Bello, an associate with Baer Crossey, a firm that chiefly serves start-up companies.
Fellows also enter the job market with direct experience working with clients and a list of professional contacts.
“It’s a very active role you play,” Bello said. “And it’s a networking opportunity.”