Lawyers are Slow, But Firms Shouldn’t Be

TL;DR Nutshell: Don’t be fatalistic in assuming that working with good lawyers always means slow response times. But also don’t delude yourself into thinking that any particular lawyer, if she’s good, will be immediately available for your every need. Asking the right questions about responsiveness up-front will prevent a lot of frustration in your startup’s relationship with its lawyers.

In my discussions with founders re: what they look for in hiring lawyers for high-growth, investor-backed startups, I’ve found that everything usually boils down to 4 criteria (often in the following order from most important to least, but not always):

  • Quality – Top founders usually have a strong understanding that (i) decisions when the Company has $5K in the bank account can (and often will) have a material impact on the business when its hit $20MM ARR, and (ii) cleaning up legal mistakes is orders of magnitude more expensive than doing it correctly the first time.

Quality is typically the main reason that startups ‘upgrade’ from generalist lawyers. See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not Big-Firm Lock-In

  • Trustworthiness/ Like-ability – Your lawyers will be (or should be) close advisors working with you on the most high-stakes, strategic decisions of your company’s lifecycle. That relationship will get dysfunctional quickly if you can’t trust them, or simply don’t like them as professionals.

Trustworthiness is typically the main reason startups switch lawyers/firms from those that their lead investors insisted they use. See: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

  • Efficiency – Hiring good lawyers, like hiring good developers, will never be cheap. It’s a basic law of markets that top talent requires top compensation. That being said, there are a lot of ways that founders can ensure that their legal budget is paying for great lawyers and not for expenses/overhead that isn’t actually resulting in better value.

Efficiency is typically the main reason startups avoid, or stop using, very large firms with billing rates 4-5x of what top lawyers require in compensation. See: How Startups Burn Money on Startup Lawyers

  • Responsiveness – This usually comes last because many founders have, through frustrating past interactions with the legal profession, come to the conclusion that ‘dealing’ with lawyers inevitably involves long wait times. Sort of how I brace myself every time I have to enter a specialist doctor’s office, because I know a 9:30 appointment, which was scheduled weeks ahead of time, usually means actually being seen around 11.

Send your lawyer an e-mail and expect a response in 3-4 days, if he’s not too busy. That’s just what it takes to work with good lawyers when you’re a small startup with a modest legal budget, right? The big fish have their attention most of the time, so just get in line… It doesn’t really need to be this way. Understanding 3 concepts related to lawyer economics will help you avoid this scenario:

1. Appreciate institutional bandwidth – and why, for speed, firms > solos. 

If recruiting and motivating top lawyers requires competitive compensation, then with basic math you’ll see why great lawyers who work with early-stage startups must work with many startups, not just yours, to get paid. Good startup lawyers are busy people, because maintaining a strong portfolio of work allows a lawyer to get paid well without burdening any particular company with an excessively large bill.

However, while a solo lawyer who is very busy will have only one thing to tell her client when they need something done quickly – “wait” – lawyers in firms have institutional bandwidth. If I’m busy, and I often am, I have other lawyers (and staff) in my firm who can be assigned to keep work moving. Properly run law firms know how to manage bandwidth and ensure that work is “spread” throughout their roster, without a loss in quality. This allows great lawyers to stay busy (required for compensation), without burdening clients with ridiculous wait times.

This point is, however, related to a second important concept:

2. For your primary counsel, hire a firm, not a lawyer. But size of practice area matters more than the size of the whole firm. 

The old adage “hire lawyers, not firms” has a lot of truth in it, but that truth only applies with the right factual backdrop:

  • It’s usually said by in-house general counsel, who themselves maintain a roster of specific lawyers (at various firms) that they can task on projects to manage bandwidth. Founders do not have this, and trying to build it for them would be a waste of time.
  • It assumes that there is something very unique about a particular lawyer that you need that others in her firm cannot provide. If you are doing cutting edge niche legal work that is unique to your particular market – like perhaps a patent lawyer with a very deep understanding of your special technology that no one else on the market has, this may make sense. For general startup/vc law, this is flatly not true if the firm you’re working with maintains proper standards and training for its roster of lawyers.

Of course, your primary contact with a firm will be a specific lawyer. But if you want to avoid waiting days, or even weeks, for something as simple as a response to an e-mail, you need legal bandwidth, and that means a firm. Expecting a specific lawyer to handle everything you need is the fastest way to ensure you are going to wait a long time for that lawyer’s attention, unless you’ve got several hundred thousand dollars a year in your legal budget for him. That’s called “in house counsel.”

But take note: there are a lot of law firms with 500, 1000, even 2000 lawyers who are incredibly slow. Why? Because they don’t actually leverage institutional bandwidth. A lot of those lawyers inside these large firm are either (i) in completely unrelated practice areas and hence aren’t actually available to help your particular lawyer (useless to you), or (ii) working in silos (just sharing a brand) with no effective mechanism for collaborating with one another. There are deeper reasons behind this “silo” problem that span issues like technology and compensation structures, but that’s too deep for this post.

Keeping dozens of different specialties of lawyers under the same firm is massively inefficient – to use econ jargon, we can call it “diseconomies of scope.” But within a specific practice area, there are very large efficiencies – shared technology, training, templates, institutional knowledge, and access to client information  – that a focused firm has over a bunch of independent lawyers. That’s why the specialist ecosystem that MEMN leverages is made up predominantly of specialized boutique firms, not solo lawyers (although there are those as well), each with their own institutional bandwidth within their practice area. See: The Tech Law Ecosystem v. BigLaw. 

3. Don’t hire an M&A or IPO Lawyer who uses startups as lead gen. Hire a startup/vc lawyer.

There is a massive difference between a lawyer who focuses on M&A (large exit transitions) and simply pursues startup clients as lead gen for very large deals v. a lawyer whose focus is startups and venture capital. The technology law firms that have very good response times have segmented large exit transactions as a specialty that operates alongside, but separate from, emerging companies corporate work. On top of improving response times, this results in better startup/VC lawyers and better M&A lawyers.  Find one of those firms.

Compare these two lawyers:

  • Lawyer A is assisting this month on (i) a formation, (ii) two seed deals, (iii) a Series B and Series C financing, and (iv) a $500MM acquisition.
  • Lawyer B is assisting this month on (ii) a formation, (iii) three seed deals, (iii) 2 Series A financings, and (iv) a Series B and Series C financing.

If you’re a startup client w/ one of those seed deals or VC financings and have a question, or you’re just a client with a quick question on a new hire, who do you think is more likely to respond promptly to your e-mail? Lawyer A, because of the fundamental fact that large, high-stakes, fast-paced exit deals tend to consume lawyers’ attention (for understandable reasons, big fees at stake) is going to take a lot longer. Hire Lawyer B over Lawyer A, and just ensure that Lawyer B’s firm has M&A specialists for when you need them… or hire Lawyer A and take a number.

Recap: Startups move fast. It is extremely frustrating to founders when their lawyers can’t keep up.  That doesn’t mean you should expect McDonald’s like responsiveness – these are highly skilled, busy professionals managing a portfolio of clients, not your in-house assistants – but if it takes days to even get a response to your e-mail, there’s an underlying problem that should be dealt with. For primary corporate counsel, find a firm with lawyers who focus on early-stage/emerging tech work, and with institutional bandwidth within that specific practice area.

And if you want the truth on how responsive a group of lawyers are, there’s no better place to go than that firm’s client base.  Believe me, if a founder CEO is frustrated with the responsiveness of her lawyers, you’ll have zero trouble getting her to talk about it.

Navigating Referrals in a Connected Startup Ecosystem

Nutshell: Referrals and recommendations from influential people in your startup ecosystem, or from people you trust, are an extremely important way to build your startup’s set of advisors, mentors, service providers, investors, etc.  But there’s a wide gap between an authentic referral made on merit v. one made because of quid-pro-quo business relationship hiding in the background.

Background Reading:

Cheap “Networking” v. Respect

I have never set foot on a golf course, and really don’t care to any time soon. I honestly don’t know anything about wine other than that I’d generally prefer a good beer over it. I have no idea what anyone on ESPN is talking about every time I’m sitting in my barber’s chair. And I still need someone to explain to me why everyone on there is so dressed up, to talk about sports? Why, might you ask, would any ambitious lawyer who cares about biz dev make zero effort at improving his game on what many consider to be the core pillars of business networking?

In short: when I recommend anyone to a client: an advisor, a service provider, an investor, even a specialist lawyer, I believe it should be solely because that person actually deserves the referral – meaning that I think they are the best for the task – and not because I expect to gain something personally from making that recommendation, or because I “like” them. I don’t care about anyone’s golf game, sports knowledge, or whether they will refer anyone back to me – and I expect the same in return.

I have pissed off and/or disappointed a lot of people because of this mindset, but in the arc of your own career, particularly in a career based on serving as a trusted advisor, respect will sustain you far more than dozens of superficial connections purchased with steak dinners and side deals.

Build Your Inner Circle

As a founder, the moment you show even the slightest sign of building a strong company, you’ll find yourself inundated with people who want to connect with you. One of your first jobs is to learn, quickly, whom to (politely) say “no” to. You can only have so many coffee meetings before they get in the way of actually building a real company. And if you spend enough time at a few startup events you’ll quickly realize how many “startup people” aren’t actually building real companies. Avoid noise. Find signal.

Building your network (quality over quantity) is extremely important, especially if you’re CEO. But it’s (at least) equally important to build and maintain your inner circle.  More than people with great resources, money, or advice, these are smart, helpful people whose character you’ve judged to be a cut above everyone else’s; meaning that they can be trusted in a way that your broader group of connections cannot.  There is no magical formula for finding these people, or sorting them out from others. Your ability to “read” people will improve over time.

In general, your inner circle should be made up of experienced, smart people who (i) consistently speak their mind more freely than others, (ii) often make recommendations that run against their financial interests or personal connections, and (iii) will give you opinions/feedback that others in the ecosystem don’t have the personal brand independence to give.  Referrals from those people are gold.

Your inner circle can be made up of advisors, investors, experienced founders at other companies, etc. What matters most is that you have one to turn to when faced with those inevitable, high-stakes moments where people with all kinds of incentives are pushing you in different directions, and you need cold objectivity. And as I’ve mentioned before and will repeat here: build diversity of perspectives into your inner and outer circle. The smaller the ecosystem, the harder this is to do – and often times connecting with true outsiders (geographically) can be very valuable.

Lawyer Referrals: Merit v. Kickbacks

With respect to the legal services required for a scaling tech company, a group of corporate lawyers (what we are) generally serve as the quarterbacks of a broader team of specialist lawyers; much like how an internist or general practitioner physician quarterbacks specialist doctors in treating a complex condition. For that reason, the main types of referrals that we (at MEMN) find ourselves making are to specialist lawyers – patents, trademarks, immigration, IP licensing, privacy, import/export, etc.

As I’ve written before, every law firm has built in financial incentives to “cross sell” their own lawyers. If I’m at a law firm that follows the traditional “one stop shop” full service approach, I make money if I can convince you to use our specialist lawyers. It’s called “origination credit.” If you use another firm’s lawyers, perhaps because they have more domain expertise for my type of technology (often the case for patent lawyers in particular), I get nothing. Given this fact, it should not shock you at all when your BigLaw corporate lawyer always refers work to his in-house specialists, without suggesting more appropriate alternatives.

A network of specialized, focused boutiques and solo lawyers should, at a structural level, have a far more merit-based referral system. And it does.  But even among smaller firms there are lawyers who’ve set up kickback relationships that usually aren’t disclosed to clients – and yes these are often on shaky legal ethics grounds. They’re often structured in the form of a referral fee, or % of fees resulting from the referral. While I’m not going to say definitively that these arrangements should automatically invalidate the trustworthiness of a referral, they should at a minimum give founders reason to do their own diligence on the referral before moving forward with it.

It never hurts to ask a referring lawyer: is there a referral fee arrangement in place here?” If it’s some kind of startup program (accelerator, incubator, etc.) making the referral, I would ask is the lawyer/firm you’re referring me to sponsoring your program?” ‘Sponsorships’ often mean the firm is, effectively, paying for referrals. This is actually becoming a mechanism by which large firms entrench themselves, through accelerators.

Again, I’m not going to criticize lawyers who monetize their legal connections. I understand the reason behind it.  But with that being said, MEMN’s specialist network does not have any built in kickback arrangements. When I tell a client “you should use X lawyer because she’s the right person, and at the right billing rate, for the task” I value being able to say it with total objectivity. Back to the point made earlier in the post, make your money by becoming awesome at what you do, not by trying to cut shady side deals that taint your trustworthiness.

Financially motivated referrals work great in a lot of product and service vendor-oriented marketplaces, but in the world of top-tier advisors – where trust is your most valuable asset – they should, in my opinion, be avoided. One of the largest benefits of properly functioning ecosystems is how transparent they are compared to large, top-down organizations.  That transparency means meritocracy, if enough people with backbones are able to resist the urge to “cut a deal.”

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

TL;DR Nutshell: In the course of your startup’s life, you’ll need perhaps a dozen or more different kinds of specialist lawyers.  There is very little about the practice of law today that requires you to source all of those lawyers from one firm when the “right” lawyer (experience, rate, culture) may be a solo, at a boutique, or at another large firm.  Yet traditional law firms continue to push the “one firm for everything” full service model because it allows them to mark up specialist lawyers whom startups could otherwise hire for several hundreds of dollars less per hour.

Background Reading:

Most people have a good understanding of the importance of specialist doctors; that if you have a serious skin issue, you call a dermatologist, but if you have a serious heart issue, you call a cardiologist.  Biology is far too complex, and the stakes are simply too high, to rely on a single generalist who, while valuable at coordinating specialists and keeping an eye on the forest relative to the trees, couldn’t possibly be smart enough to cover every specialty without repeatedly committing malpractice.

Generalists v. Specialists

New founders typically have less of an understanding of how this generalist v. specialist divide also exists for lawyers.  If you’re a 3-person coffee shop that isn’t playing on a national scale, it may be OK to rely on a single general lawyer to incorporate you, file your trademark, and maybe handle your lease.  But if you’re a scaling startup seeking VC funding and making decisions on Day 1 that will influence your company’s prospects when it hits $25MM in revenue, you need solid specialist lawyers.

The category of “startup lawyer” is itself a specialty. It means a corporate lawyer who (you hope) specializes in working with early-stage technology companies and has closed so many angel and VC deals that she doesn’t need to be “educated” when your investors show up with a term sheet.  Startup lawyers also play the role of a generalist, sourcing and quarterbacking specialists as needs come up for their clients.

Here are just a few examples of specialist lawyers that startups often require as they grow:

  • Patent Prosecution – which itself contains dozens of sub-specialties depending on the type of science/technology. You don’t hire a patent lawyer with a background in organic chemistry to draft your IoT hardware patent.
  • Patent Litigation
  • Commercial Litigation
  • Trademarks
  • Tax – U.S., and Country-Specific
  • Tech Transactions – (Licensing, Reseller Agreements, OEM, Distribution Agreements, etc.) – subspecialties include hardware focus, SaaS focus, etc.
  • Data Security / Privacy – subspecialties include financial data privacy, HIPAA, etc.
  • Open Source IP
  • International Trade / Export Compliance
  • Employment / Labor Law – federal and state-specific
  • Employee Benefits and Compensation
  • DE Corporate Governance
  • Environmental
  • Real Estate
  • Securities Regulation
  • Immigration
  • Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A)

One of the main points that I’ve driven home in many SHL posts, and around which MEMN’s tech practice has been built, is that no single law firm can or should attempt to employ all, or even most, of the specialist lawyers that a technology company needs over its life cycle. Apple is massive and employs dozens or hundreds of different types of engineers and executives. Why? Because without doing so it could never produce the iPhone 6. Take any specific type of developer or engineer out of Apple and have her work alone or at a much smaller entity, and she couldn’t possibly produce as much value as she can being integrated at Apple.

This is just not how law practice works. Lawyers in various specialties absolutely do collaborate to ensure clients are well-represented and that work performed by various people doesn’t conflict, but with today’s SaaS/collaboration tools (which weren’t available a few years ago), that collaboration occurs just as easily (and depending on the firm, more easily) between focused, specialized firms as it does under the same massive, bureaucratic structure.  

I can call a top trademark lawyer at a 5-person boutique or a similar lawyer at a 1000-lawyer firm, and their capacity to handle 99.9% of my client’s trademark needs is virtually the same, though the boutique lawyer will be $250+/hr less (yet make the same or more per hour), and generally give my client more attention. The core value produced by large law firms is concentrated in individual professionals who, unlike people working at integrated companies like Apple, hardly become less valuable when you change their address and sig block. 

The Driver of Big Firm “Lock In”

So why don’t large firms simply break up, allowing their lawyers to drop their rates and stop wasting clients’ money? Aside from fear and inertia, there is one very serious “glue” keeping BigLaw together: origination credit.  In law firm economics, lawyers make money not only from the work they do, but also from a % (their origination credit) of the work done by other lawyers in their firm for clients they source.  If I’m a startup lawyer at a large firm and can push my client to use my firm’s trademark lawyers, patent lawyers, litigators, etc. etc., I get a cut of all those fees. I don’t get a cut if I send them to another firm with better lawyers, lower rates, and more appropriate skills. 

Many founders are shocked to find out that, for the vast majority of lawyers in BigLaw, maybe 20-25% of the amount they bill ends up in the pockets of the lawyers doing the work. You’re billed $650/hr for a patent lawyer, but maybe $175 gets to that lawyer.  Most of the rest is: (a) bloat (see above), and (b) markup to feed the origination pyramid.  

Putting aside how much this screws clients (founders), you cannot possibly understand how badly specialist lawyers would love to be able to bill clients $300/hr less, without taking a cut in their compensation. But many of them can’t, because leaving their large firms means being cut off from the deal-flow. The only specialists who are able and willing to break free are the ones with enough client loyalty (and chutzpah) that they can take clients with them. And those are the specialists MEMN likes to work with.

Boutique Corporate Lawyers and the Specialist Ecosystem

When a startup works with a startup lawyer in a large firm and needs a specialist lawyer, 99% of the time the startup lawyer will push work to his own firm’s specialists. Never mind that the specialist he chooses may be over-kill, or over-priced, or simply a poor fit. That’s his firm’s specialist, and the firm expects him to “cross-sell” into other specialties. He wants his cut.

When a startups works with an MEMN startup lawyer and needs a specialist lawyer, we assess the various options in our network (or elsewhere) and let the client choose what he/she thinks is the best fit. For example, we could go with a solid solo lawyer billing in the $200s who’s excellent for straight-forward work.  If it’s a more serious issue we could go with the slightly more expensive boutique w/ high-end specialists in the $300s or low $400s.  Or if it’s a bet-the-company issue we could go with one of the top specialists in her field who formed her own firm recently and bills at $500/hr (she was $800 at her former firm).

Granted, sometimes the absolute right lawyer is, unfortunately, still in BigLaw, and we work with her, but every year that becomes a rarer occurrence as the specialist ecosystem grows.  And I always favor lawyers outside of BigLaw because of the risks they’ve taken, the better attention they give to clients, and the fact that they are building a legal market that is less soul-sucking for the country’s top legal talent.

The point is that we leverage our vetted network of specialists to ensure clients get “full service” legal counsel, without misaligned economic incentives muddying the relationship. Clients aren’t “locked in” to any particular set of specialist lawyers, so we’re free to choose from a much broader pool. While this represents a loss in origination credit for our lawyers, it also significantly enhances their value proposition to clients, helping overall with business development.  Short-term loss, long-term gain.

Founders should be mindful of the incentives behind how their startup lawyers source specialists, because they can and will have an impact on the bottom line, and could even result in major screwups from a mismatch between what the startup actually needed and the specialist who was put on the job.  While the overall market is evolving to favor flexibility, transparency, and efficiency, a lot of traditional firms still tout b.s. about the importance of “big firm resources.” Smart founders know that “big firm resources” is, for the most part, just code for “we’re going to keep milking clients with overpriced specialists until the music stops.”

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.”

The Tech Law Ecosystem vs. BigLaw; Except in Silicon Valley

Question: Why is it that, despite being the epicenter of championing innovative business models, dynamic markets, and the disruption of bloated institutions, Silicon Valley remains dominated by a handful of very large, expensive law firms built on century-old delivery models?

The Blunt Answer: History and Bribery “Sponsorships.” Those large firms have dedicated biz dev people whose job is to write checks to incubators, accelerators and other players with heavy influence on the “pipeline.”  Sponsorships have enabled BigLaw to entrench itself.

And those same firms deliberately seek out VCs (not just companies) as clients, who tacitly understand that, in exchange for the firms’ not pushing too hard on VC deals (when they represent companies), the VCs are supposed to act deeply concerned when they don’t see one of the good ol’ firms at the table; even if the lawyer they’re poo-pooing has impeccable credentials, experience, and even just left one of the very same firms on their ‘preferred list.’ Sound incestuous? It is. See Don’t Use Your Lead Investor’s Lawyers and Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers.

It’s well known among the tech law community that no tech ecosystem –not Austin, Seattle, Boston, NYC, etc. – takes law firm “brand obsession” to levels anywhere near those of Silicon Valley, in large part for the above reasons.

History

The full answer is of course a bit more complicated. See: When the A-Lawyers Break Free: BigLaw 2.0.  Before the Cloud and SaaS, big firms truly were necessary to deliver the tier of legal counsel that top tech companies needed, and Silicon Valley’s early growth period occurred largely in that era.  But at some point technology changes things, and the rules of the game shift.  I’ve staked my career on the view that this shift has occurred, and is accelerating.  I left a large, full service firm designed around the traditional “one stop law shop” model for a smaller firm that leverages technology and an ecosystem of top solo lawyers, boutique firms, and other services to replicate “full service” in a much more efficient and flexible way.

A Summary of Why The Ecosystem is Emerging (Outside of Silicon Valley)

  • There have always been second and third tier small firms that (i) picked up clients top firms were not interested in, and (ii) employed lawyers who either never met the criteria of top firms, or dropped out of those firms because they were fine accepting less interesting work and lower compensation for a more easy-going life.  An alternative to going in-house, these lawyers call themselves “outsourced general counsel.”
  • Top, well-funded clients that reached scale (the kind that seek out and are willing to pay for top lawyers) inevitably required a large set of legal specialties: tax, executive comp, IP, tech transactions, trademarks, etc. to handle all of their legal needs.
  • Lacking an affordable, third-party collaboration infrastructure (like today’s Cloud/SaaS tools) to coordinate all of these different lawyers, keeping everyone (dozens of different specialties) under the same roof to share the high fixed overhead costs was historically essential to getting large deals done smoothly and as efficiently (for the time) as possible.
  • Hence, top paying clients gravitated to large firms that could serve them, and as long as those large firms paid the most, top lawyers (in all specialties) were willing to accept the astronomical overhead, convoluted structure, and inefficiency of their large employers.
  • But now, virtually every proprietary resource that large firms once had exclusivity on is available as a SaaS tool or outsourced service, along with very affordable and extremely effective collaboration tools.
  • Therefore, those top lawyers, once locked into large firms, are realizing that as long as they can wrestle away top clients from BigLaw, they no longer have to put up with taking home only a small percentage of their billings.  They can drop their rates significantly, take advantage of their small footprint to optimize for their practice area, and take home at least as much, and often much more, as they did in large firms.  A win-win for lawyer and client – but a loss for “The Beast.”
  • End-Result: A growing ecosystem of significantly smaller, more flexible law firms and solo lawyers that (i) are at the top of their field, well compensated, and have much better quality of life, and (ii) by collaborating with one another, replicate BigLaw’s “full service,” without its soul-sucking bureaucracy.

Austin’s “Cut the BS” Culture: The Ecosystem Grows

In my opinion and based on observations from interacting with players in various ecosystems, Austin’s legal market is at the forefront of this emerging lawyer ecosystem.  Here the quality of attorneys outside of BigLaw – multi-specialty small firms, single-specialty boutiques, and even solos  – is extremely high and increasing, because the client base here isn’t anywhere near as brand-obsessed as in Silicon Valley.  We still have our own cronyism, but our strong “be authentic” cultural bent helps keep it in check.

At MEMN, we connect clients on a regular basis with experienced, top-tier corporate, tax, trademark, litigation, executive comp., patent, etc. attorneys outside of BigLaw, all with better credentials than the lawyers BigLaw throws to startups, and at rates often below inexperienced junior lawyers at large firms.  And, as far as I know, none of us took a pay-cut in leaving BigLaw.  I am fully convinced that this ecosystem will continue to gain traction, and we have every intention of pushing that traction outside of the Texas market, including connecting with firms in other markets doing the same.

How BigLaw Will Respond

Of course BigLaw is responding, but it’s important to keep in mind that “BigLaw” is a set of many different players, each with their own perspectives on the old model.  The big winners of the traditional law firm model were (i) the many layers of in-house administration and management needed to coordinate dozens of specialties and hundreds of different kinds of lawyers, and (ii) the power rain-makers sitting atop the pyramid extracting a significant amount of billings from lawyers doing the work, including all the specialists. These constituencies will absolutely do everything they can to protect the old model.

The main marketing message that will emerge from these groups will be one of “integration.”  They will argue that keeping everyone under a single structure provides benefits that make up for the overhead and inertia. In other words, they’ll try to portray themselves as the “Apple” of law.  Expensive and huge, but “worth it.” I love my iPhone 6.

Without getting stuck on this topic because this post is long enough, anyone who thinks about it will be skeptical of an analogy between software-hardware integration and the ‘integration’ of lawyers in dozens of different specialties, especially as technology continues to erode the friction in cross-firm collaboration.  A better analogy would be something like the Mayo Clinic, but of course that would mean that BigLaw must accept that only the absolutely most complex transactions (think billion-dollar, multi-national mergers) truly require its “integration” – and The Ecosystem would be more than happy to unburden BigLaw (which would then not be nearly so big) of the other 99.9% of the market.

While management and top rain-makers will work to protect The Beast, the rest of the BigLaw pyramid will, over time, come to realize that The Ecosystem is more of a liberator than a competitive threat.  Finally, a way to practice your specialty much more effectively, do interesting work, get paid well for your talent, and not have the significant majority sucked up to pay for “stuff” that doesn’t enhance your work.  Much like how technology has created an explosion of interesting, well-paying work outside of large organizations in many “knowledge worker” industries, The Ecosystem is simply an extension of that process to law.

A Message to BigLawyers

Ask yourself: if you’re billing $625/hr at a large firm and have developed strong relationships with clients, what will those clients say if you tell them you can do the exact same work for them, but charge $400/hr instead – the only real change being the signature block on your e-mails? Certainly The Beast, including the deal lawyer who ‘controls’ the relationship, will do everything it can to push the work to another $625/hr attorney in the firm. But what will the Client say?

Viewed this way, BigLaw today can be accurately described as a mechanism by which rain-makers who (lower-case c) “control” client relationships force the “labor” lawyers to stay in one large firm, accepting only a small percentage of the value they produce in exchange for “deal flow.” And by having the talent pool controlled in this way, clients who need top lawyers have to pay the higher rates to feed The Beast and the rainmakers.  The Ecosystem, and the fact that no one really controls clients (who won’t be forced to pay $625/hr when they can find the same lawyer for $400), throws a wrench in this structure.

A Message to Lawyers Building The Ecosystem

  • Collaborate;
  • Optimize;
  • Don’t fall back on generalism, but resist artisanal lawyering;
  • And absolutely do not underestimate ever the importance of branding and marketing.

Start talking to each other and sharing work.  Being solo has many inefficiencies, and for many specialties the “optimal” structure will likely be more focused firms that effectively leverage their institutional knowledge with targeted, efficient tools and processes.

Take advantage of your small footprint to experiment and iterate on process, technology, pricing, etc. that was never possible under a large firm – you are a startup.  Resist the urge to price yourself as a generalist who does boring, cheap work, but also don’t design your firm in a way that is so “high-touch, high-end” that it can’t scale.  If you’ve hit on something that works, scale it and liberate more BigLawyers.

And absolutely never, ever pretend that all it takes to succeed is to simply “be a good lawyer.”  Clients care about brand and prestige, including the deal lawyers who connect you to clients. No one can find you if you don’t know the slightest thing about marketing yourself. Serious companies won’t want to hire you if your website looks like it was built overnight by a middle schooler. Learn.

The Ecosystem will be built by the most entrepreneurial of BigLaw, including those who are confident enough in their personal brand to break free from The Beast. Once a path has been laid, the more timid will follow.

And a Message to the Gatekeepers

So you say that you’re all about disruption and transparent markets, yet you continue to hand out referrals to firms that write you checks and send attractive blondes offering steak dinners.  I’m not mad at you.  I know how the game works.  Upstanding doctors fall prey all the time to Big Pharma’s biz dev tactics, so I totally understand your inability to resist being a hypocritical little sh**.

Thankfully, every ecosystem (Austin included) has enough gatekeepers who believe in true meritocracy.  The Ecosystem is growing and will continue to grow. Companies will find a much more vibrant, dynamic legal market.  Top lawyers will find interesting, well-paying work in non-soul-sucking settings, and the most innovative will be rewarded with scale.  I’m not pretending to be Mother Theresa and absolutely have an economic dog in this fight.  But knowing all the benefits that accrue both to startups and to lawyers (my people) from it, supporting The Ecosystem is absolutely part of my mission.