Your Startup’s Legal Bill: The Printer & The Cartridge

A client of mine recently used an analogy to explain why he dropped another small, local law firm for MEMN: their printer is cheap, but their cartridges are really expensive.  That statement explains perfectly why many founders, because of their lack of understanding of basic law firm economics, can get really screwed by firms touting their low hourly rates as evidence of their “efficiency.” The core problem is this:

  • In the short term, your legal bill is a two-part equation: hourly rate * time spent. Naturally, that means that a lawyer billing $225/hr can generate a substantially larger bill than a lawyer billing $375/hr if the “cheaper” lawyer takes 3x the time to do the same task as the more “expensive” one.
  • In the long-term, “time spent” is itself a two-part equation: time spent to initially complete the task + time spent fixing mistakes (if the mistake is even fixable).  This should come to no surprise to a CEO who’s spent time interviewing and hiring developers. One developer wants a $60K salary, and the other wants $100k. Is the $60k one a bargain, or overpriced sh**?

The above two points should help make the analogy between printers and lawyers clearer:  a printer can seem like a great deal because the manufacturer locked you in with a low cost of adoption, but you should really pay attention to how much the cartridges cost, and how many you’ll have to use – and whether it flat out sucks. Because that’s where the real expenses are. It’s the exact same thing with lawyers: an exceptionally low hourly rate can seem like a great deal, but how many hours will this ‘bargain’ rate be multiplied by? And what exactly are you getting for that rate?

The “Hourly Rate” Issue

As mentioned above, it is absolutely the case that a lawyer billing $400/hr can produce a dramatically lower legal bill than a lawyer billing $225/hr; meaning that, under the right circumstances, you should be willing to pay more if the value is truly there.  But are there circumstances in which a lower rate does not mean lower quality? Yes, as I discussed in “When the A-Lawyers Break Free: BigLaw 2.0” a lot of clients are shocked to find out that when an attorney at a large firm bills them $675/hr, only maybe 20% (if she’s lucky) of that rate actually makes it to the lawyer (the talent). The rest goes to pay for all the background infrastructure necessary to support a firm full of dozens of different practice groups, offices, summer intern programs, etc.

Thanks to new technology and business models now viable because of that technology, a new breed of law firm is emerging that (unlike their predecessors who attracted attorneys by offering jeans, MacBooks, and a more relaxed atmosphere at the cost of lower compensation) can compensate their attorneys on par with and in many cases better than larger firms.  And those small, focused firms have dramatically lower overhead costs than larger firms. The end result is that, even with significantly lower hourly rates, the attorneys are still highly compensated.  Again, in law as in the world of developers, you get the talent you pay for.

Nutshell: make sure your hourly rate pays for legal talent, not an outdated delivery model.

The “Time Spent” Issue: The Problem with Generalists and Solo Lawyers

Moving to the second part of the equation: what allows a lawyer or law firm to do something more quickly, and with fewer mistakes, than another firm?  The first and most obvious answer is of course: better lawyers (and paralegals). No shocker there. Better, more experienced doctors work more efficiently and with fewer mistakes than crappier ones.  But there’s actually more nuance here than meets the eye.

Focus

You’ve developed a strange rash on your arm, and you need someone to help you treat it. Who do you suppose will be able to get it done more efficiently and effectively – a cardiologist or a dermatologist? It seems like a stupid question, but many people don’t understand the concept of legal specialization.  Focused repetition leads to specialized domain knowledge, which leads to higher quality and efficiency.

There are an endless number of business lawyers, corporate lawyers, even IP lawyers, running around touting themselves as startup lawyers. The reality is that they’ve spent 95% of their careers doing absolutely nothing related to the venture-backed startup space, but because they either stayed at a holiday inn express or because they know someone connected to startups, they’ve started to dabble in the area. How complicated could it really be? I’ll keep my answer short: get ready to be schooled.

Process and Technology

Being a generalist forces you to reinvent the wheel when specialists have already-developed forms, processes, and technology in place to minimize time burn.  A new client of MEMN recently said a prior firm charged $1700 to draft a form contract for hiring developers (which, btw, was garbage).  The startup lawyers who just read that are laughing because they know that a client who asks them for that kind of document gets billed literally 5% of that, if anything at all.

Process and technology are at the core of why the hourly rate of a law firm or lawyer says very little about what you’ll end up paying.  I’ve seen solo lawyers and boutique firms talk about “overhead” as if it’s something to be absolutely kept to a minimum at all costs.  The problem, of course, is that if you don’t invest in technology, knowledge management resources, etc., it is 100% certain that you are going to be incredibly slow and inefficient compared to those firms who do, even if those firms have higher hourly rates.  This is the core problem with solo lawyers.  Yes, their hourly rate is low, but they practice like it’s 1995. And that’s expensive.

While we’ve done everything we can at MEMN to cut out fat and bloat, I have zero qualms about investing in technology that will enhance quality and efficiency. That’s not “overhead.” It’s called running a 21st-century business.  We also have an amazing espresso machine. Treat your talent well.

Conclusion: When you hire talent for your own startup, you don’t immediately go with the person asking for the lowest hourly rate. If you do, you’re a moron. Remember that lawyers and law firms are like printers (and developers).  What looks cheap could end up being the most expensive mistake of your life.

  • Sam Iam

    I think when solo practitioners speak of “overhead” they are referring to marble lobbies, long hardwood conference room tables, and business-class travel. Maybe also a word processing department, a duplicating department and an receiving department. Most technology required to run an efficient practice is available for virtually free. Dropbox, gmail for my domain, invoicing tools, computing power … None of this was available just a few years ago, and is today very cheap. As for word processing, duplicating, and receiving? Modern workflows make these increasingly unnecessary. And services like UpWork make finding help like a temp typist very easy and efficient. Technology that is not free is relatively inexpensive. So I wonder what “technology” MEMN invests in that makes their work so much more efficient than a solo practitioner? The proposition sounds dubious ….

    • José Ancer

      Dubious to many who run smaller companies/consultancies whose transactions never reach a scale beyond what a solo practitioner can provide. But I’ve lost count how many clients (VC-backed, scaling clients) we’ve taken from solos because the solos were maxed out and were taking weeks to respond to e-mails, prepare docs, etc. Staffing (paralegals, assistants, juniors), knowledge management templates, legal tech SaaS, etc. all make up necessary (not excess) “overhead” to serve as legal counsel to scaled clients.

      Healthcare is a great analogy. If you’re dealing with a cold, or a common illness, a solo is great. They have their place. But when the stakes are higher, you need at least some institutional knowledge and resources.

      • Sam Iam

        So that’s a unconventional understanding of the term “technology”. What you’re really saying is you have LESS “overhead” than the majors, and that’s your advantage. You’re also saying you have MORE “overhead” than solos, and that’s your advantage. It’s a convenient Goldilocks paradigm, hard to argue with, because it’s just conclusory: You’re the perfect balance of overhead and capability because you’re the perfect balance of overhead and capability. Exactly the same proposition could be advanced by anyone from a solo to Freshfields.

        • José Ancer

          You seem to have misunderstood the purpose of this post, and generally misunderstood how markets work. On a weekly basis, our firm has scaling tech companies switch to us both from BigLaw and from solos, and zero in the opposite direction. This post was an explanation of WHY that is the case; not an attempt to make a theoretical argument for why our structure might be better than others.

          For every product/service there is an optimal amount of overhead/infrastructure needed to deliver it, and providers with too much and too little will see their customers/clients switch to better designed providers. It is an empirical issue, and we are on the front lines observing the evidence. The fact that you can’t wrap your head around it is irrelevant. It is not my job to hold your hand to get you there. Thanks.

          • Sam Iam

            I think I understand quite clearly that you are touting yourself as the platonic ideal of legal services providers. I congratulate you on your marketing bravado, but notion simply does not stand any sort of scrutiny. That none of your clients defects either to majors or solos suggests either that your sample size is quite small or that your clients plateau – neither rocketing to IPO nor scaling down to lifestyle businesses. Or maybe I’m mistaken: How many IPOs and billion dollar strategic mergers has your firm worked on? If your proposition is that for every legal matter there is an optimal level of legal resources to be brought to bear, that is a commonplace. If your proposition is that for every legal matter YOU offer the optimal level of legal resources, that is an absurdity.