Scaling Strategic Counsel

TL;DR: There is no shortage of entrants into the legal market who pretend that some magical formula, or piece of technology, or amount of money, is the key to “disrupting” law firms with prominent reputations. For the kinds of lawyers who do far more than just push paper, it usually ends up as different versions of the same flawed story.

Background reading:

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how the consumers of legal services think and behave. In doing so, I’ve had a fun time watching the evolution of various hypotheses held by legal market entrants (firms, solo lawyers, technology companies), and predicting where they would go. Success in any business (including the legal business) doesn’t require psychic abilities, but if you have good instincts for human behavior and psychology, you can surprise people with how accurately you can predict the future.

“Faster and cheaper” can take you far in many industries. And while “startup law” isn’t entirely an exception to that rule, there are subtle but extremely material factors that make it particularly challenging to build and scale a serious emerging tech law firm.  The below are some personal thoughts on how emerging companies (startups) select their lawyers, the flawed hypotheses that lead many players in the legal market to fail or stall, and principles we’ve held as we’ve patiently grown MEMN from a handful of people into a leading emerging tech/vc boutique law brand scaling outward from Texas.

1. Long-term, quality really matters. A lot.

“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” – Benjamin Franklin

When you purchase a family vehicle, or select a surgeon, more likely than not price is not the final determining factor in what you end up buying. But for a lot of people, I would bet price plays a bigger role in purchasing a meal, or a piece of clothing.

Why? Because the stakes, and consequences of a serious error, are much higher for the former. Long-term thinking purchasers of legal counsel understand this extremely well, and it’s the reason why despite there being a glut of lawyers broadly, those in the top quartile, particularly those who serve the C-level among companies, have never done better. “Minimally viable lawyers” are not doing very well.

“Move fast and break things” is an extremely valuable philosophy in a context where mistakes are easily, and unilaterally, fixable; which is why it emerged from software entrepreneurs. In the legal world, where something broken very often cannot be fixed, and something as minute as the absence of a few words, or a single missed step, can completely and permanently alter the outcome, it is a stupid and dangerously reckless way of approaching things.

Efficiency is absolutely important. To say that quality really matters is not at all to say that cost is irrelevant, or that smart clients don’t dislike seeing waste. We love adopting new technology, and the speed at which we (as a boutique) can do it makes us a magnet for legal tech startups. However, a foundational principle of MEMN’s sustainable growth has been that we deliberately filter out prospective clients who clearly do not value legal counsel; no matter how promising their business may be.

Just like the economic viability of Tesla, or any high quality brand, requires consumers who are willing to pay what it takes to deliver quality, the viability of any serious law firm requires clients for whom low cost is not their primary principle in assessing legal services. All early-stage startups face challenges with legal budgets, but smart law firms learn to identify when the issues are coming from real budget pressures that can be accommodated v. a personal sentiment that legal services are just overhead spend to be minimized.

I’ve seen many law firms fail by thinking that “we can do it cheaper” is, alone, an effective business development strategy. First, that strategy inevitably attracts the worst, most disloyal, clients; who treat lawyers as fungible commoditized vendors. Second, the smartest clients know that, without trustworthy evidence that quality has not been hit, very low prices signal very low quality, which is too risky for a high-stakes service.

2. For strategic advisory, independence and creative judgment really matter.

There are two levels of legal work that a serious corporate law firm can provide. One is transactional counsel, where the goal is to get it done, correctly. Precision (quality) and efficiency are the primary values for transactional legal work. You definitely want a law firm that can demonstrate that they take precision and efficiency seriously.

The next level of service is a lot rarer in the market, but the smartest clients seek it out: strategic counsel. Strategic counsel isn’t about executing a plan of action with precision.  It’s about creating a plan, and that requires creativity (stepping outside of a standard playbook) and social intelligence (what does this specific client care most about?). What should you do? Why should you do it? What will happen if you do X or Y? How will other players respond?

To use metaphors, merely transactional lawyers help you play checkers, but strategic counsel helps you play chess. And at the highest C-level issues in complex markets, you better believe you are playing chess. For that kind of work, the judgment of the particular lawyer (apart from the firm) you are working with is extremely critical, and it’s why I’ve written before that avoiding “captive” counsel (getting independent judgment) in this context is essential. For startups/emerging companies, very very few advisors are able to integrate deep knowledge of legal issues, market norms, contract comprehension, financial structures, and strategic analysis the way that a top VC lawyer can.

A big area where I’ve seen law firms fail in recruiting is a lack of appreciation for this transactional v. strategic divide. They care so much about credentials and “IQ” skills, which are important for accuracy, that they neglect to hire for the kind of strategic judgment that the smartest clients seek out, and are willing to pay for. Good strategic judgment is as much about instincts, situational awareness, and character as it is about intelligence. Fail to recruit for them, and you’ll get high-precision paper pushers. 

Even within large firms with very prominent brands, you often notice a wide disparity among partners in terms of their ability to attract clients. The driving force behind that disparity is judgment. Clients know most of the lawyers at that firm can execute a task properly, but the number of lawyers who can really advise on core strategic matters (like a term sheet, or a key hire) – and particularly the ones who will do so for a small (but promising) company – is significantly smaller.

3. You cannot assess quality without diligencing reputation.

As I wrote in “Ask the Users,” for the most important people building your team of advisors, service providers and investors, you cannot afford to rely on highly ‘noisy’ signals like social media, PR, public reviews, or even blogs. The level of BS spin that money can buy you on the internet is boundless. You must go directly, and confidentially, to people who’ve worked directly with those people, and get their off-the-record feedback.

There are certain qualitative aspects of legal counsel that are highly visible to a client very quickly in their relationship with a law firm. These are usually things like responsiveness, soundness of advice, efficiency, technology, etc., and they are very important. Delivering on these variables is very complex and hard for a law firm, so hearing good user feedback on them is a good sign.

However, legal services are somewhat unique in that the full truth about their quality can take years to reveal itself to a client. At very early stage, where a lot of documentation is heavily precedent driven and transactions move fast to keep bills down, founders/executives often don’t spend very much time actually reviewing the work product of lawyers in depth. They assume it says what it should, and they often don’t even know what it should say. 

It’s in Series A or M&A diligence, with serious counsel on the other side of the table reviewing the legal history, that the wheat really gets separated from the chaff among VC counsel. And people who’ve played the VC/Emerging Tech game in depth know that there’s a lot of “chaff” even among prominent law firm brands.

You can think of the end-product of a law firm as software code that truly only gets reviewed/run every few years in major milestones. Major “bugs” can sit there for years, compounding enormous legal technical debt, without anyone on the business team being aware. When you diligence counsel, you want to hear about what errors/mistakes were discovered in VC or M&A diligence, which means talking to companies that actually got there. Doing a great job at pumping out option grants or convertible notes is not a reflection of the kind of legal quality that matters long-term; nor, frankly, is having worked for a few years at a prominent law firm brand. People deep in the game have many horror stories about how the B or C-player at a firm with a marquee brand screwed something up badly. 

Conclusion: This sh** is hard. Really hard. Way more complicated, if you want to scale sustainably, than putting together a few half-decent lawyers, having them put on jeans, and buying them MacBooks; which is pretty much the extent of what many boutique firms do.

With respect to serious emerging tech legal services, including strategic counsel, you’re talking about building something at scale that addresses all of the following:

(i) extremely small details can have extremely large and often irreversible consequences that are undiscovered until years later;
(ii) because every client’s needs are widely different, you are squarely in highly customized services, not automatable product, territory;
(iii) your ability to attract (and pay for) highly-educated human talent with very subtle behavioral differences dramatically influences the quality of your highest level service;
(iv) you have to be able to filter out the prospective clients who simply won’t pay the real cost of your service, regardless of their budget or how efficient you are, while being flexible/patient on budgets with (hopefully) good clients in their very early days;
(v) there is a part of your industry that is hell-bent on proving that some magical piece of technology is suddenly going to render you irrelevant; and
(vi) aggressive, influential players are sometimes trying to undermine your ability to provide your clients honest advisory.

Though you will endlessly hear opinions to the contrary, there simply is no “move fast and break things,” “mvp and iterate,” “just throw lots of money at it” formula that gets the job done in complex legal services; not if you take quality seriously. And this is why “disrupting” the status quo has proven so difficult despite the fact that it’s a large industry totally exposed to people whose entire MO is to disrupt things.

And yet here we are, patiently putting together the intricate pieces of this unique puzzle, and continuing to grow. Lawyers have popped up claiming to be cheaper, and yet we’ve kept growing. Software tools have popped up pretending that the primary challenge of our industry is a technological one (it’s not), and yet we’ve kept growing. Influential market players have tried to convince our clients to switch to “captive” firms, and yet we’ve kept growing. This is not some “scale fast at all costs” game we’re playing; not when the cost would be exposing good, hard-working people to extremely costly errors.

While we’ve definitely broken more than a few rules of conventional wisdom for how law firms are usually run, we are still here to do our job, correctly, honestly, and efficiently; and to win the trust and loyalty of people who truly value what we are built to deliver.

And for the many people out there who might find all of this a bit passé, no worries. There are plenty of alternatives out there to suit you.


Also published on Medium.