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Philadelphia law firm bets on start-ups' potential

Ballard Spahr lawyers are betting on a handful of area start-up companies they hope will become the next Comcasts or Microsofts.

Ballard Spahr lawyers are betting on a handful of area start-up companies they hope will become the next Comcasts or Microsofts.

The Philadelphia law firm has launched a program to promote small to medium-size businesses by offering them discounted legal and financial advice, in the belief the firms will prosper and stick with Ballard for legal representation.

Gregory Seltzer, cochair of the firm's emerging-growth practice, said companies are selected on a competitive basis. Companies admitted to the program are offered monthly sessions with financial planners, tax experts, and lawyers versed in the complexities of forming new businesses. Legal services are not free, but costs are reduced through flat charges and other alternative-fee arrangements rather than being billed by the hour. "The program benefits Ballard in the sense that Ballard obtains clients that are going to grow into large clients," Seltzer said. "If law firms want to attract entrepreneurs, then law firms have to be entrepreneurial."

Seltzer said Ballard is taking applications for the program and anticipates that three to five small companies will be part of the mix by the start of the 2016.

The program grew out of a similar initiative aimed at campus entrepreneurs seeking to launch their own businesses. The campus-based program is still underway and provides similar instruction on company formation, application of labor and employment laws, taxes, and other matters. The firm provides up to $10,000 worth of free representation for campus entrepreneurs, Seltzer said.

Seltzer said the campus program was launched about a year and half ago, after he met with a handful of young law associates and concluded the firm might generate some business if it reached out to college student entrepreneurs who were long on creativity but lacking in practical business and legal experience.

"The associates said these folks don't have the ability to pay, so I went to the leadership of the firm and asked whether we were willing to make an investment," Seltzer said. "The answer overwhelmingly was yes."

This year, the student entrepreneurs' program has three companies founded by students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and two by students at Drexel University.

The students give the program high praise.

Wharton's Kobina Ansah and Shuo Zhang, who enrolled last year with a start-up, Modernlend, said they received invaluable legal assistance on regulatory and compliance matters. The company has developed software for alternative credit checks on new immigrants to the United States who have not been in the country long enough to develop a credit history sufficient for traditional lenders.

"Ballard was instrumental in helping us understand the opportunities in this space," Zhang said.