by Grace Yuh
Joe Hedal has been with the Transaction Law Clinics (TLC) for over a decade as deputy director and a senior clinical instructor. During his time at the TLC, Joe has guided countless HLS students through their clinical experience and worked with a diverse number of clients and organizations.
“Joe has been a tremendous blessing for our clinic and the law school,” said Clinical Professor of Law and Director of TLC Brian Price. “Hard to believe that 10 years has passed because he’s been such a fixture. Aside from myself, he’s been a TLC member the longest of anyone we’ve ever had. Of course, over the years we became friends. We were quite fortunate that Joe chose TLC. With his blend of knowledge, judgement, kindness, humor, decency, and rational thinking he is a unique individual in today’s world. Joe is as solid as they come. Goes without saying that he’ll be tremendously missed but we sincerely wish Joe well as he turns the corner to his next phase.”
As Joe transitions to next steps beyond the law school, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP) sat down with him to learn more about his time with the clinic and the Harvard Law School community.
This interview has been edited for space and format.
OCP: It’s been a little over ten years since you first came to Harvard Law School. What kind of work were you doing before your transition into academia?
Joe Hedal (JH): I would say I had a fairly traditional path coming out of law school. I worked in a couple different big law firms in Boston getting some experience and prior to joining Harvard, I was general counsel to a NASDAQ listed tech company for over ten years. When I left the corporate world, I was looking for an organization that had more of a mission-based focus. I wanted to do something that I felt was contributing to some public or social benefit. In many ways, working in a legal clinic is perfect for that because it combines both education, which obviously has a mission, and a service component. TLC fit really well, it was something I serendipitously came upon.
OCP: What has your role at TLC been as deputy director and as a senior clinical instructor?
JH: My role has changed somewhat over the years. I’ve become more of a part of the leadership and more active in teaching in the classroom. In terms of the student experience, the model at TLC sees the students as the lawyer-advisor to the client. They’re not working within the usual law firm model where they are the junior associate to the [clinical] instructors. Students are responsible for their clients. My role is one of mentoring and providing guidance and trying to help students based on where they are in providing legal services as a lawyer.
I tend to be as hands off as possible. I try to get students to think about how they should handle specific issues, whether it’s communication issues, substantive issues, strategic issues, or trying to analyze what their role is in a particular case. At times there’s a tension between the education we provide to students and the services we provide to clients. I might become more directive in a particular situation because of time sensitivity or the nature of the work for the client. Having said that, the hope would be that students are able to drive the work themselves.
OCP: What kind of work does TLC do? What would you say is a typical case?
JH: We operate like a small general practice law firm within the law school. We do everything from representing a startup getting formed as a legal entity to helping them with contracts and financing issues, employment issues, IP and trademark filings, and working with government filings. It’s really a very broad practice. All this can also apply to a non-profit client but we additionally help them get formed as a non-profit corporation and get tax exempt status with the IRS. Within the clinic we also have an area that Brian Price primarily does, which is entertainment law with recording artists, including copyright and trademark work. We also do real estate work, so working with first time home buyers and commercial leasing on the tenant
side. I’m probably leaving out a few things but you’re probably getting the idea that it’s really varied and broad.
OCP: Are there any typical client groups that the clinic works with?
JH: I wouldn’t say we have a typical client or case. We have clients that come out of the Harvard i-Lab [Harvard Innovation Labs] that are student startups more focused on technology or startups that have a social mission element. We’ve done a lot of work with community-based clients and that can be everything from a family-owned specialty food business to someone starting a yoga studio. Practically any business that you can imagine is probably something we’ve worked with. The clients we work with usually don’t have the financial resources to access private market law firms that would provide similar services. That means we often work with low-income and underserved or disadvantaged populations as well as student organizations. We also do a lot of work with non-profits with a wide variety of missions, for example ranging from setting up a school in a Sub-Saharan African country to preservation of Asian elephants in Southeast Asia to social justice issues in Boston.
OCP: How do clients find TLC?
JH: Many of the clients that come to TLC are through referrals or word of mouth from other clients we’ve worked with, or sometimes through presentations we’ve made in community workshops. The clinic has been around since the mid-1990s so we have a reputation within the community for providing high quality legal services with pro bono and low bono fee arrangements. For new case intake, we have an online application process and an in-person process. When students are in the clinic, they do the intakes. So each day a student will be assigned to handle all intakes that day to gather information such as demographic, contact info, and the type of legal services the client is requesting so that we as a clinic can evaluate whether it fits our mission and within our expertise. We also hold office hours at the i-Lab as well as another community incubator space, Fairmount Innovation Lab in the Uphams Corner neighborhood of Boston. Often times those initial consultations will turn into long term client engagement.
OCP: What have been the effects of COVID-19 on the clinic?
JH: There’s probably more focus on landlord-tenant issues in commercial properties where businesses are under pressure because of reduced revenue from having to quarantine and shut down. That certainly has a ripple effect in our client base. In terms of specific work, this Spring we had a workshop on landlord-tenant issues in a commercial setting and negotiating leases. That was a workshop we had started with East Somerville Main Streets in February before COVID shut everything down, and so the students ended up completing it through a Zoom Webinar. That’s just one example but like all the clinics, we’re adjusting and still learning about how we can adapt and work best during this time.
OCP: How does the class component of TLC tie into the larger clinical experience?
JH: The classroom component at TLC is certainly intended to support the casework each student is doing. At TLC, each student has assigned clients, each has anywhere from three to four to as many as eight that they’re responsible for in a semester. The first half of the seminar
is providing a great deal of information that most students will encounter with clients. For example, ethical issues, communication issues, core areas that we work in, which are business and non-profit formation and contract work. We’ve also had a negotiation module. The other thing the classroom provides is a forum and the opportunity for students to discuss what they’re working on so each student gets visibility to what the other students are working on. By doing that, it allows an exchange of ideas on how they’re handling client issues and exposure to many different areas of substantive law because a student might not see all the issues in their client base. There can be really rich discussion ranging from policy to ethical discussions and even issues around work-life balance. Seeing the enormous professional development in just a semester is really incredible.
OCP: You’ve worked with many students over the years. Why do you think students choose to join TLC as a clinic?
JH: Often times they want to do transactional or they want to work in a Wall Street firm so they’re looking for experience helpful to that career path. But also it could be a student that doesn’t really know what transactional law is. They just want to find out more about it. It can also be a student who knows they want to be a trial lawyer but thinks that while they’re in law school, they have the opportunity to get exposed to stuff that other lawyers do. Maybe they’ll change their view or get good background for them as a litigator. A lot of litigation involves transactional deals that go bad.
OCP: What is a misconception some people may have about TLC?
JH: I think sometimes TLC is seen as an outlier compared to other clinics when it comes to doing work that directly impacts social justice. In my mind, economic justice and social justice walk arm-in-arm, you really can’t have social justice without economic equity. The work that TLC does might be more focused on economic justice but supports social justice issues because of that connection. There’s some sort of a notion that transactional law is seen as a divide to public interest work but I don’t see it that way, I think that the work we do ties very closely with public interest work.
OCP: Do you have any advice for students who are interested in taking TLC?
JH: Be open to different paths and don’t get pigeonholed into thinking you have to be a certain type of lawyer. At times, I see an attitude that students are either in big law or public interest and they kind of get boxed that way. The suggestion is that it’s one or the other and I don’t know where that comes from, but I think a lawyer can start down one path and change. I’m an example of that, somebody who started in corporate law and wanted to change to a more mission-based approach and was able to do that through joining TLC. There are plenty of lawyers who go into big law but have what I could describe as a public interest compass. I think that bucketing of students early on isn’t helpful and students should think that they have the flexibility to take different paths.
I’d also say be open to taking the clinic even if you’re not sure transactional law is something you’re interested in. It’s a great opportunity to explore it, both in terms of exposure to work you might not see but also acquiring skills that are highly transferrable. Communication skills,
research, analysis, drafting and writing, regulatory interpretation, and just general professionalism are important for any lawyer, regardless of practice area.
OCP: Have there been any particularly meaningful or satisfactory cases for you?
JH: Some client cases have involved more complicated and challenging substantive legal issues which have been interesting to work on and to see students dive into these issues that require more strategic judgement. There are some clients that we’ve worked with that have been particularly satisfying to watch them launch and be successful. A number of those have been restaurants in the Boston area and other small businesses. We had one situation where a worker in a restaurant reached an agreement with the owner to buy the restaurant and we helped them with that. The Democracy Brewing case is certainly one that was more complicated as well as satisfying. Several years ago I joined the board of Tech Goes Home, a digital equity non-profit TLC has worked with, and through my board role have been supporting their progress. Tech Goes Home provides education, technology training, and computers, to low-income people in Boston and the surrounding area and is currently training about 6,000 people annually in Greater Boston.
OCP: What has been one of your favorite things about TLC?
JH: I think one of the things I saw coming in and something I see while going out is the wonderful blending of the mission of education and service that is a part of what we at TLC and all the clinics at the law school do. The other thing is working with a great set of students every semester, as well as colleagues. I’ve been here for a number of years so I’ve seen people come and go but it’s always been a great group of people. There have also been some really interesting clients I’ve enjoyed working with, from all walks of life and all different kinds of personalities.
OCP: What are your plans after HLS?
JH: COVID makes specific plans hard for everybody right now but I know I will continue to work with Tech Goes Home and perhaps find another non-profit board. As it turns out, this is a good time for me to make a change. I’ve got a lot of outside interests I’ll have more time for and in the short term, in addition to voting, I’ll explore how I can contribute to the effort to make sure the people currently in power are not in power following the election in November.