Startup Lawyer’s Poker: Fee Deferrals

Nutshell: Startup-focused law firms with well-developed client bases are able and willing to bet on (the 1% of) startups by deferring their fees, but founders should understand what they’re signing up for when agreeing to those arrangements.  In many cases, fee deferrals are just clever ways for firms to “lock in” already de-risked founders and have them ignore massively marked-up price tags on legal services.  Think before you drink the kool-aid. 

It’s no secret that one of the largest expenses that early-stage startups face from their very early days is the cost of hiring competent lawyers. The reason for this is simple: “cloud” economics don’t apply to people. Deploying a SaaS startup has become way cheaper than it was 10 years ago because of all the “X as a Service” that founders can leverage instead of having to invest significant amounts of capital on in-house technology.  But, unsurprisingly, developers still aren’t cheap. Being a good developer requires years of training and unique talent, and being human requires paying for stuff.  Good developers cost real money.  Good lawyers, like good doctors, cost real money.  Anyone suggesting otherwise is attempting to defy the laws of physics.

All that being said, readers of SHL know that there is a lot that smart founders can do to avoid over-paying for legal services:

  • Are you just one or two founders working on an MVP? – Use Clerky and/or, if you need a lawyer, hire a top-tier boutique firm that specializes in early-stage tech, and be careful with generalist solo lawyers.
  • Do you need specialist lawyers for things like trademarks, patents, or other specialty counsel? – Resist the firms that VCs try to force you to use, which are usually very large firms that over-charge clients by $200-300/hr in order to fund their pyramid structures, outdated bureaucracies, and bribes sponsorships of accelerators for funneling companies through them. If you think an extra $200 for every single lawyer hour won’t have a material impact on your runway, do the math again.

If I wanted to get cash-strapped founders to completely ignore the real cost of startup legal services and get them to pay my 2-3x inflated price tags, what would be a great way to accomplish that? Answer: defer my fees until they are less strapped for cash. 

PayDay Loan Meets No-Shop Clause

For many law firms, the fully transparent bargain in a fee deferral can be summed up as follows:

  • Assuming your bill doesn’t go above $X (often something like $25-50K), you don’t have to pay us anything for at least 6-12 months, or until you raise $Y (often a range of $100K-$500K).
  • In exchange, please ignore the fact that everything we charge you will be massively marked up. And we’d also like 1% of your common stock.
  • Also, don’t think about using other law firms for anything while our fees are being deferred – we can’t afford our deferrals if every client goes and hires those lawyers that left our firm 2 years ago and now work for $250/hr less than what we’re charging you for less experienced lawyers. If you do, the bill needs to get paid. This isn’t UNICEF.  The Life Time Value (LTV) isn’t there if all you’re using us for is a fixed-fee formation package.

If a major law firm has made this kind of offer to you, it’s likely because you’ve signaled to them that this bargain is a good deal on their end. Usually, that means you’ve been accepted into a major accelerator, received interest from an investor, or have otherwise been “vetted.” You’ve been de-risked. Smart founders who are lucky to find themselves in this position should obviously ask: if I’m de-risked, is this actually a good deal for my startup?

Be Smarter About It

In startup law, successful late-stage clients cross-subsidize early-stage clients that can’t yet pay their bills. This economic reality ensures that, as long as small firms are stuck working with B-players, the firms with A-clients will always be able to win more A-clients by offering them fee deferrals that the smaller firms simply can’t match.  Startups that don’t want to be bankrupted by lawyers, yet also don’t want to be locked down by gilded handcuffs, really then have two options:

  • Find the efficient A-lawyers, and budget for their services. – Well run focused firms can be dramatically cheaper on early-stage services than traditional firms (and, frankly, better quality), particularly those small firms that regularly work with startups and have optimized their pricing structures for those kinds of companies.  Budget for their services just like you budget for anything else. The truth is you rarely need that much lawyer time before your seed round.
  • Find top-tier smaller firms that are willing to defer. – Remember, only firms with solid client bases can afford to defer their fees for good clients. Many small firms simply won’t do it, but some will.  The deferrals won’t be as large (because your LTV for them is smaller – they aren’t trying to do everything legal for you) but it doesn’t need to be, because the bills are lower.

The evolving law firm ecosystem that I’ve written about is increasingly moving up-market, working with higher-quality clients that once were too afraid to use anyone but the established law firm brands. That means those smaller, more nimble and efficient firms are increasingly able to offer their own “incentives” to attract top-tier clients, without the massive costs of shackling yourself to a single, large full service firm. 

To be honest, I’ve always viewed fee deferrals as an unfortunate, but necessary evil in the startup law space; a kind of smoke and mirrors to distract everyone from the very real problems that traditional law firms are unwilling to address. Does MEMN do fee deferrals? Yes, unlike most firms our size, we defer for a small segment of our clients.  I’ve picked enough winners and turned down enough losers to trust my instincts on deferrals.  But if you ask me about deferring my fees, my initial response is always going to be “let’s talk first about how we’ve made top-tier startup law actually affordable.”