Member Highlight: Priya Baskaran

1. Tell us a little about yourself and the educational or career path you took to get to where you are now?

My name is Priya Baskaran and I am an Associate Professor and Director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic (EILC) at the West Virginia University School of Law. In law school, I was fortunate enough to take the Urban Communities Clinic – a transactional clinic that supported nonprofits, community organizations, and small businesses in Detroit. I fell in love with Detroit, which in many ways resembled my hometown of Pittsburgh. My clients were working to support and preserve their communities in the face of systemic and structural racism and inequity that spanned decades.

2. What specifically drew you to working with social enterprises and democratically-led organizations, such as cooperatives?

I love supporting organizations invested in the economic security of their communities. In order to create sustainable economic growth, we need greater community involvement and input. So much economic development work focuses on luring large employers. These companies have no true ties to the community and are all too quick to divest during economic hardship. The community remains voiceless and economically hampered. In stark contrast, many of the social enterprises I have represented embody a community driven model in their mission. They seem themselves as local enterprises and are dedicated to serving, employing, and positively contributing to the community.

3. What do you find to be the most challenging about being a lawyer [or law student, legal apprentice, or other legal professional]?

As a lawyer, I play a very limited role. While I can be helpful, my clients need so many additional things to be successful: access to capital, infrastructure, affordable business services like accounting and web development. I wish I could do more to support my clients who are doing such great things in their communities. I have learned to build a bank of referrals to help clients navigate various ancillary resources.

4. What do love most about being a lawyer [or law student, legal apprentice, or other legal professional]?

I always joke that no one will ever write a legal thriller about transactional lawyers. We are not uncovering secret documents or managing a big witness reveal in the courtroom. My victories are wonderful, but private. I cannot tell you about my biggest win because it involves a client’s trade secret. This lack of glory in no way affects my job satisfaction. At the end of the day, I take something as mundane as a contract, and transform it into something effective that protects my client and helps them achieve their next benchmark. It may help secure a valuable piece of land to expand their farm or help them create a new revenue stream for their community organization. I love being able to use my skills to support good work.

5. What are some of the needs you see in your community that you are hoping to address through your work?

We need more holistic solutions rather than focusing simply on “Entrepreneurship” as a solution to poverty. Poverty is the result of innumerable factors – why would the solution be so easy? There are so many systematic inequities that need to be addressed, we need to build trust to have honest and inclusive conversations about economic disenfranchisement. I am fortunate to work with groups taking a more holistic approach. If my legal assistance can help them succeed in building their model, then my time has been well spent.

6. What, if anything, would you change about the legal profession or legal community if you were in charge?

We need to create better entry points for young attorneys interested in working as community economic development lawyers. They need more training opportunities to work with small organizations, helping them become competent in a variety of business law area rather than tracked into one or two specialties. We need to make it affordable for them to engage in this work.

7. Who is your ideal client or what is your ideal project?

I love working with clients who have already started their work and come to my Clinic mid-stream. It helps me contextualize transactional work for students, reminding them of the specific role they play in helping a client implement her goals. It also gives us an opportunity to provide the full range of transactional services from IP to real estate to corporate structuring and governance. My favorite projects generally involve value-added agricultural products, mostly because I get to sample them. Though if pressed – I would admit that these clients also offer an amazing array of legal issues like branding, licensing, regulatory compliance, farm labor, real estate contracts, supply contracts, etc.

8. What do you like to do when you are not practicing law [studying, or working]?

I love to read fiction and eat spicy foods! I try not to do both at the same time as it can result in me ruining library books with hot sauce.

9. What are your “go to” resources and current sources of inspiration you can share with the Next Legal community?

I love reading about what the BALLE fellows have been doing. I think they support some really interesting idea exchanges and their projects are so innovative.