Rachel’s Network and Ashoka — the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs — have teamed up to uncover environmental innovation and promote women who are pioneering sustainable change. We are proud to announce the result of this partnership: new Ashoka Fellow Janelle Orsi, sponsored by Rachel’s Network.

As a law student, when Janelle saw how easily her peers were pulled away from their values and into high paying legal work for wealthy clients, she vigorously resisted that pull. Against the advice of professors, lawyers, classmates, and the Career Services Department, she did something unique: she started a law practice that would specialize in “sharing law”. She recognized this was a big risk, but believed strongly that the legal profession desperately needed to reinvent itself in service of community wellbeing.

Over the last decade, experimentation with new economic models has been accelerating in the U.S. and around the world. Often referred to as the “new economy” or the “sharing economy”, these models include cooperatives of various kinds, community-owned enterprises, time banks and more. This economy is based on shared ownership that retains value and builds resilience in local communities while also supporting environmental sustainability.

These new economic models are an antidote to many of the social and environmental ills that plague modern capitalism.  However, our laws and regulations and tax systems – and even how lawyers are trained – are shaped by tradition, with clear dichotomies between producer/consumer, employer/employee, landlord/tenant, etc. Many well-intentioned initiatives thus face immediate legal barriers to launch and gain the legitimacy needed to take root.

So Janelle founded the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in 2010 to develop an entirely new legal infrastructure that supports this new economy. SELC provides direct legal support to communities, training the next generation of community lawyers in partnership with law schools, and drafting new legislation at the city and state levels.

At the SELC Resilient Communities Legal Café, community members are invited to drop in to the welcoming cafe-life space, connect with one another, attend discussions and teach-ins, and get legal advice on their initiatives. Since its launch in 2013, the Legal Cafe has provided advice to more than 200 Bay Area enterprises and organizations.

SELC is now developing tools to help groups replicate the café model elsewhere, including the web portals,,, and Janelle and her team are also experimenting with a creative apprenticeship that allows lawyers in 11 states to practice law without going to law school and without incurring massive debt.

In 2012, SELC drafted the high-profile Homemade Food Act which passed the California legislature and removed barriers to home-based food enterprises. This victory put SELC on the map and has helped develop momentum for similar legislation: within the last year alone, SELC introduced four pieces of groundbreaking legislation in California, including the Neighborhood Food Act, which removes legal barriers to the sale of homegrown and urban-grown produce, and the Worker Cooperative Act, which creates a type of corporation specifically for worker cooperatives.

The SELC has six full-time staff and hopes to add two more attorneys and one more administrative staff by 2015. It has adopted a highly unconventional salary structure, where all employees earn the median salary in Oakland, which is currently $43,000.

Janelle’s recent book, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, published by the American Bar Association, provides a detailed blueprint for how to begin classifying and regulating relationships in a collaborative as opposed to competitive economy. Learn more about Janelle and the SELC at their website.

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