Pitt Students Plan Urban Ag Law Firm in the Iron City
May 17, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
“I think it’s inspiring how much Pittsburgh has changed even in the last ten years,” says Jaclyn Clifford of Trellis, a Pittsburgh-based sustainable policy and ag business legal firm. “It’s incredible how the city’s not only growing in terms of population and jobs, but people are really starting to become more environmentally aware.”
Marlene van Es and Jaclyn Clifford are launching their sustainable law business before finishing law school. Along with their communications officer, Sarah Abboud, they will offer a monthly subscription fee system and focus on urban agriculture in the city. The bar exam is set for July, and Trellis will open its doors in August 2015.
“Our model is unique. We see this as a real way to serve a vastly underserved community both in the policy and legal context,” says Clifford.
Trellis will focus on two main areas: policy consultation services and legal representation for agriculture business.
“We quickly found out that there’s this huge and growing environmental and agricultural community, especially urban agriculture, here in Pittsburgh that really doesn’t have access to cost-effective and predictable legal services and policy services,” says van Es. “We realized that this was a huge need and this was something we were passionate about.”
By offering a subscription fee rather than the traditional billable hours fee schedule, Clifford hopes Trellis will be a source of reliable assistance for its clients. Predictability is a buzzword for Trellis with some real grit behind it.
“When we first started working with the community, the traditional legal system doesn’t favor them for two reasons: 1. Traditional law is expensive and 2. It’s not predictable,” says Clifford. “With our subscription rate and payment plan, they can put that into their grant applications.”
Preparing for their law school graduation in May and studying for the Pennsylvania Bar Exam in July keep van Es and Clifford very busy. Because of a hectic spring schedule, they decided to make an early start on promoting their business. They wanted people to know that legal services can be predictable, affordable and compassionate.
“It was very important for us not only to get our faces out there but participate in local events. We held one of our own events. We had a lot of nonprofits, small business owners and urban farmers come and talk about the issues. It can be intimidating, but if it’s something you’re passionate about and you make a real effort, I think people can see that,” says Clifford.
Trellis will offer assistance in navigating municipal codes, food safety laws and environmental policy. Through their work, van Es and Clifford plan to actively advocate for the growing local food economy in Pittsburgh.
“There’s a lot of focus on local food now. I think people are really tapping into the fact that we’re surrounded by a lot of wonderful farms,” says van Es. “There’s a focus on local markets and building green technology; a lot of nonprofits are popping up. A lot of people starting their own urban farms. ”
Working with college business advisors, innovation mentors and entering contests has helped van Es and Clifford move Trellis forward. Clifford and van Es entered the University of Pittsburgh’s Startup Weekend and came in third place. Trellis was the only law firm to enter the University of Pittsburgh’s Big Idea Competition.
“The university has an incubator call the Blast Furnace. It’s an 8-week intensive program for start-up businesses. We’ll be doing that in June,” says Clifford.
With contacts made and a lot of the initial networking in place, Trellis is now focused on raising startup funds. They need capital for the mundane yet essential small business infrastructures such as insurance premiums, office space, equipment and online legal servers. Trellis chose IndieGoGo for their virtual fundraising platform.
If all goes to plan, Trellis will be Pittsburgh’s first boutique urban ag firm.
“For us it’s not only this area of law but how we’re offering these services. I think lawyers need to start thinking less about the traditional way of making money and more about their potential client and what is the best way to serve them,” says Clifford. Trellis will begin its environmental policy consulting branch in August. Full legal services will begin in November, as soon as the two women receive their bar results.