How Startups Burn Money on Lawyers

TL;DR Nutshell: There’s a lot of bad advice floating around startup ecosystems about how lawyers work, and how founders should go about minimizing their legal burn. Much of that advice, which is given without ever actually consulting lawyers, ends up costing founders more in legal fees in the long run.  Below are some thoughts (from someone who actually knows how startup law works) on how to not burn money on legal, while also not blowing up your company.

First off, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: I am a startup lawyer.  Some would claim that this discredits me in writing about startup legal fees, because clearly I’m just going to write whatever maximizes my compensation. Right? Never mind that I spend 90% of my time on SHL writing about how startups can or should, for example:

If your attitude is that all lawyers are money-grubbers with no ethics beyond maximizing legal bills, then (i) this blog is not for you and please don’t ever e-mail me, (ii) I’m 99.9% confident that you’ve never actually built anything successful in business, and are not likely to, which is why you’ve never known good lawyers, so again please (iii) never contact me.

Now that we have that out of the way, here is a starting fundamental principle: when you put aside the issue of institutional overhead (which is a massive issue), the economics of lawyers closely aligns with the economics of developers: great developers, and great lawyers, expect great pay. If you’ve come to accept the reality that building a company on quality, scalable, durable software code requires paying the money to bring in great developers, it should not stretch your imagination to grasp why building a company on quality, scalable, durable contract drafting (which, when you think about it, is a lot like software code) requires paying the money to bring in great lawyers. And lest you forget, it does not cost $250,000 in education to become a software developer, but sadly (very, very, deeply sadly) that’s the going rate of top-tier law schools. :: deep sigh ::

Software code may determine whether your company ever makes money, but legal code determines whether you ever make money. That’s why founders who actually know what they’re doing hire great developers and great lawyers. 

With all of that in mind, the startups who burn money on lawyers fail to follow these basic rules:

1. Hire an actual Startup Lawyer, early.

Not an M&A lawyer. Not an oil & gas corporate lawyer. Not an IP lawyer. And certainly not the schmuck hanging around your coworking space or incubator who, because he’s friends with someone, decided to re-brand himself as startup lawyer without ever having seen a real VC deal. If you have a heart issue, you call a cardiologist. If you’re building a startup that will raise venture capital, you hire a lawyer who specializes in (guess what?) startups and venture capital.

There is a very simple 2-part test for determining whether the lawyer you’re talking to is actually a startup lawyer, notwithstanding what his LinkedIn profile says:

  • A. Where is your AngelList profile?
  • B. What was the last VC deal (>$2MM) you closed?

If the lawyer doesn’t pass the above test, you will never forgive yourself after going through the world of pain he will bring to your company.

And separately, cleaning up the mess of a bad lawyer ALWAYS costs 10x what it would’ve cost to have it done correctly on Day 1. You are not being capital efficient by letting your “lawyer friend” handle your formation, with plans to get a real lawyer when you’ve raised a little seed funding. You’re just accepting a smaller legal bill early on for a much much larger one a bit later.

2. Hire a law firm (not a solo lawyer), but not one too big.

Now I’m ruffling some feathers, but SHL is not about making friends. Background reading:

Hire a solo lawyer, and you will (i) end up paying for a massive amount of inefficiency that an intelligently structured law firm would’ve avoided by adopting the appropriate technology, processes, and staffing, and (ii) max them out quickly. A $200/hr rate is not efficient if it’s multiplied by 3x the number of hours. If you are building a small company for which maybe a 6 or 7-figure exit is the end-game, a solo lawyer can be a great, even optimal fit. But companies going after big exits outgrow solo lawyers very quickly, and switching lawyers is very expensive.

Hire a very large firm, however, and you will pay for an enormous amount of bureaucracy and overhead that will not add a single bit of value to your company.  You’ll pay $600/hr, and $150 will make it to the lawyer, if she’s lucky. The fundamental principle requires paying for lawyers, not a bunch of unnecessary fluff. Modern software/SaaS has rendered the institutional structure of large firms completely unnecessary.

And be careful with referrals w/o your own verification. Out of hundreds of people I interact with, there are only a handful whose opinions on referrals for various services I actually trust as objective and based on merit. There are so many side-deals, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” arrangements, and general cronyism in startup ecosystems that should lead you to be skeptical of any particular person’s lawyer recommendations. See also: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers. 

3. Use Specialists.

Background reading:  Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not “Big Firm” Lock In

If a single lawyer says he can form your startup, close your seed financing, draft your real estate lease, draft your provisional patent, and apply for your trademark, run like the wind. This should be self-explanatory.

4. Do your homework, but don’t pretend that you can DIY.

If your startup law firm offers some work on a fixed fee (and they should), they are not doing it out of the kindness of their charitable heart. They are doing it because it (hopefully) makes economic sense for both sides. If you expect your lawyers to spend hours explaining to you the ins-and-outs of vesting schedules, IP, how convertible notes work, etc. etc., and yet somehow magically fit it all into an affordable fixed fee, you’re only going to select for crappy lawyers who have no choice but to accept such an unprofitable arrangement. Remember the fundamental principle.

The best founders I work with do their homework, and when they come to me with a request, they have already developed a working grasp of 75% of the concepts. Reading startup/vc law blogs, books, articles, etc. is to building a startup what reading WebMD is to being a medical patient. You will save money, make fewer mistakes, and get an overall much better end-result.

But the flip side of this is – accept that, no matter how much startup law might seem totally simple, even easily automatable, this is some complicated sh**. Very very smart people hire smart lawyers because they are smart enough to know what they don’t know.

You may think “I just want to issue some stock. That’s simple, right?” without having any clue as to all the steps that need to be taken, questions that need to be answered, and processes that need to be followed to actually accomplish that goal in a way that doesn’t create huge regulatory or contractual problems.  If you’ve hired the right lawyer(s), trust them to do their job. You will mess it up. 

5. Be Organized, and Make Clear Requests.

Related to “do your homework,” go to your lawyer(s) w/ clear action items or, at a minimum, clear questions that will help you arrive at clear action items.  You will burn a lot of legal funds asking your lawyer for one thing on Monday, changing the request on Wednesday, and then asking for tweaks on Thursday, than if you’d just waited until you knew exactly what needed to get done before making the request.

6. Be Realistic.

Good developers try everything they possibly can to avoid clients/CEOs whose views on how much time it actually takes to accomplish a task are totally detached from reality.  Good lawyers do the exact same thing with clients.  If (i) you have vetted your lawyer(s) and determined that they are trustworthy, efficient, and highly knowledgeable, then (ii) you should not be badgering them every month about why the bill is higher than you wanted it to be. It could backfire.  It would be ridiculous for me to walk into a company and tell the CEO how to run it, with zero domain expertise. Don’t be just as ridiculous with your lawyers and their practice.

Newsflash: you will ALWAYS pay more for lawyers than you want to pay. Remember the fundamental principle.

Hire an actual startup lawyer, at a firm that isn’t too big. Use specialists. Do your research, but trust your lawyers. Stay organized, and stay realistic.  Follow these principles and you will not get that Series A financing for $5,000 like you always wanted, but you will easily save 6-7 figures in legal fees over the life of your startup, and have a much healthier relationship with some of your closest advisors.