Checklist for choosing a Startup Lawyer

A friend mentioned to me the other day that, as much great content as there is on Startup Law, there isn’t a simple list of things a founder team should assess in choosing their own company counsel. So here it is, leveraging past SHL posts in a distilled form.

Background Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained.

Are they actually a “startup lawyer”?

The number of lawyers over the years who have attempted to re-brand themselves as startup lawyers – meaning corporate lawyers with a heavy specialization in early-stage technology and venture capital – has gone up significantly. Law has numerous specialties and subspecialties, much like healthcare, and you want to ensure that, if you’re building an early-stage technology company looking to raise outside capital, your main lawyer(s) has deep experience in exactly that.

See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. The last thing you want to end up with is a litigator, patent lawyer, or small business lawyer who thinks that, because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, he suddenly knows startup law.

Ask for their AngelList profile, or a list of deals they’ve closed in the last 6 months.

Do they have access to other specialist lawyers that you’ll need?

In line with the above, the first lawyer you’ll need is a startup lawyer, but once the business gets going, you’ll quickly need others, including commercial/tech transactions lawyers, tax lawyers, data/privacy lawyers, patent lawyers, trademarks, litigation, etc. They do not need to be under the same firm (and you often benefit if they aren’t), but a serious startup lawyer who represents scaled companies must have direct access to these kinds of specialists to provide responsive counsel to their clients.

A simple “yes, we have access” is not enough. Ask for names, info on how they normally engage, and do your diligence.

Is their infrastructure / cost structure right-sized for what you’re building?

Be realistic about what your company will look like over the next 5 years if things go as planned, and hire a lawyer/firm that can serve that company, without scalability problems. Are you building a narrow app for which a successful exit would be a few million dollars? A solo lawyer would probably be a good fit for you.

Do you legitimately see yourself as on a potential IPO or >$500MM exit track, and targeting a $10-20+MM Series A in a year or two? Law firms that represent “unicorns” may be a good fit for you, even if they’re much more expensive.

Are you realistically on more of a $3-10MM Series A, and $50-300MM exit path; or maybe you’re more interested in scaling on revenue alone? You’re going to get too big for a solo, fast, but “unicorn” firms are probably overkill for you. Try a boutique law firm.

See: When a Startup Lawyer can’t scale and Lies about startup legal fees.

Are they familiar and aligned with the norms / expectations of your likely investors?

In line with the idea of hiring a right-sized law firm, if you’re not on the unicorn track, you will run into problems if you hire lawyers who generally represent (and target) companies who are.

We see this often when, for example, law firms from Silicon Valley represent a tech startup raising local money in, say, Texas or Colorado. Ecosystems of different sizes often have very different norms and expectations, and you can run into cultural or even process conflicts when your lawyers simply don’t speak the same language as your investors, or other stakeholders. The largest deals in the largest tech ecosystems – SV and NYC – have much closer market norms, and smaller/mid-size deals in smaller ecosystems like Austin, Boulder, Seattle, etc. often behave similarly among themselves.

See: The problem with chasing whales.

Are they not conflicted with investors you’re likely to raise money from?

Entrepreneurs, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, lean heavily on their startup lawyer(s) for core strategic guidance in navigating negotiations / issues with their main investors. Ensure that the lawyers you hire do not have deep ties to, or dependencies on, the people who are likely to write you checks, or the lack of true independence of the advice you get can burn you in the end.

See: How to avoid “captive” company counsel. 

Finally, do they “not suck”?

After all of the above, do these folks actually answer their damn e-mails quickly enough? Do they have good technology / processes in place to make your life easier and work efficiently? Do they give real strategic advice, and not make tons of costly mistakes that you end up having to pay for in the long run?

See: Lawyers and NPS.

There are lawyers who will check all of the above boxes, and yet after you talk to their clients, you’ll find that they just suck to work with. Do your homework / research on the more objective checklist items, but in the end never forget to choose lawyers who actually care about doing all the subtle human-oriented things that result in good service.

post-script: A few questions that don’t belong on the checklist:

  • Is the lawyer in my city? – Nothing about local city law applies to startup lawyering. Think regionally, or focus on their client base resembling what you’re building.
  • Can they introduce me to investors? – See: Why I (still) don’t make investor intros.  There are far more effective ways to get connected to investors than through intros from a law firm.

Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law

TL;DR: Standardization reduces time and fees, but at the cost of increased inflexibility. And sometimes, flexibility matters more.

Related reading:

Imagine you’re about to have a baby. You start asking your OBGYN about the facilities, preparations, etc., and the response you get is: “don’t worry about it, it’s all standard.”

Ok…, but your family has a history of certain unique hereditary conditions. Things can go wrong. You try to prod further. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be standard procedure.”

Are all people “standard”? Well, are all companies?

Standardization has its place, and certainly has its benefits. Those benefits include:

  • Lower Costs (at least upfront);
  • Faster execution, often enabled by technology;
  • Easier review.

In short, standardization makes things cheaper and faster. As great as that is, for any high stakes situation, a half-intelligent person will step back and ask: are speed and low cost really my top priorities here?

The purpose of this post is to discuss why the general push toward standardizing all financing (and other) documentation for startups, while clearly lowering up-front legal fees, is not always as “founder friendly” as the automation companies, investors, and other parties who also benefit from standardization, would have you believe. Nothing is free.

As I’ve written before a few times: “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds sketchy, and potentially raises red flags. If you want a novice team to simply move on and not ask questions, a real chess player will say “let’s save some legal fees.”

We’re negotiating over millions of dollars with potentially tens or hundreds of millions in long-term implications, but great, let’s save a few thousand in legal fees now by “streamlining” things. Right.

Who chooses the “standard”?

By far one of the most over-used phrases I hear in financing negotiations is “this is standard.” Says who? Do you have data? When you personally close dozens of financings a year across state lines, and have visibility into hundreds, like our lawyers do, it is very amusing when someone who makes maybe a handful of investments a year starts trying to lecture you on what’s “standard.”

The other day I heard a VC say that not having an independent director on the Board post-Series A is “standard,” and virtually everyone else in the room could smell the manure.

If you are looking to adopt market “standards,” make sure they are actually standards. Work with advisors with broad market experience to verify claims, and triangulate advice from multiple, independent advisors. Don’t let anyone simply dictate to you what the “standard” is. 

Serial players benefit from standardization. It’s not about saving companies legal fees.

Investors have portfolio incentives; meaning that they have their bets spread around a dozen or two dozen companies, sometimes much more if they’re a “spray and pray” kind of fund. For investors who look for unicorns, they expect most of their investments to fail, and just need 1 or 2 grand slams to make their returns. Unicorn investors demand very high growth, because even if such an approach can increase the number of failures, it will also maximize overall returns across the portfolio by turning up the juice on the 1 or 2 unicorns.

Entrepreneurs and their employees, on the other hand, have “one shot” incentives. Their net worth is concentrated in one company, and therefore the specific details, and risks, applied to their specific company matter a lot more to them.

The emphasis on very fast, very cheap financings benefits, above all else, large investors with broad portfolios who are looking to minimize their costs on any particular bet. It is not something developed out of beneficence toward companies; who often stand to gain more from adopting structures better suited to their specific circumstances. 

Standardization necessitates inflexibility, and when you’re fully invested for the long-haul in one specific company, flexibility may matter much more to you than simply moving as fast and cheaply as possible.

So who is standardization really for? The people who work in volume.

Lies about fixed legal fees.

One of the worst lies spread throughout some startup law circles is that fixed fees somehow “align” incentives between clients (companies) and lawyers. The argument is that, if lawyers bill by the hour, they will simply bill endlessly without reason. Thus, fixing their fees “solves the problem.”

Except it doesn’t.

Assuming all lawyers are principle-less economic actors who will do whatever maximizes their profits (cynical, but the general argument here is cynical), fixing legal fees does not align incentives between a client and the lawyer; it reverses them.

If Mr. Jerk Lawyer will run up the bill unjustifiably when the economics are hourly, he will, once you fix his fees, reverse course and do the absolute bare minimum necessary to complete the work; pocketing the difference. Why put in that extra hour or two to discuss a few nuances with potentially very material implications to the team, if it just hurts my fixed fee ROI? “This is fine and standard” is a much easier answer. Trust me, the minimum professional standards to avoid malpractice are very low. Close the deal, and move on to the next one.

Oh, but wait, the fixed fee proponent would retort: the fixed fee lawyer will still do a great job because he’s concerned about reputation. Response: (i) isn’t the hourly billing lawyer also concerned about reputation? (ii) you often don’t find out whether the lawyering you got was “good” or “bad” until years later. The difference between great counsel and bad counsel is in nuanced, long-term details not visible at closing. A-players and C-players can both close deals. I’ll let you guess which ones more often agree to fixed fees. 

There is a place for fixing legal fees when the work being done really is commoditized, and not of high strategic significance to a company in the long-term.  But anyone who thinks that fixed fees are some kind of magical solution to long-term lawyer-client relationships is, to put it bluntly, full of sh**. In attempting to solve one problem, they create other ones. So let’s all please stop pretending that when investors insist that you cap your legal fees when negotiating against them that they’re doing it to save you money. It’s a way to get your lawyers to stop talking to you. 

Our view is that clients definitely deserve some level of predictability in their fees, and we provide that by crunching data across our broad client base, and providing clients budget ranges based on that hard data. We also keep clients regularly updated on accrued billings, to avoid surprises. I promise to deliver transparency and data-driven predictability within reason, but I need, and smart clients want me to have, the flexibility to address unforeseen issues that, in my judgment, are material enough to fix, even if I could get away with ignoring them without anyone noticing for years.

Reputation plays a huge role in keeping legal fees reasonable. You’ll go much further diligencing a set of lawyers, asking their clients whether they feel they keep their bills honest, instead of adopting some nonsense idea that fixing/capping fees will magically produce the outcome you really want.

Standardization and Flexibility need to be balanced.

All good startup lawyers adopt some level of standardization, as they should. There is a lot of room for creating uniform practices that save time and money, without damaging quality and flexibility. But any attempts to pretend that complex, high-stakes law can be “productized” should raise serious skepticism, at least from entrepreneurs who view their company as something more than just another cookie-cutter number in someone else’s portfolio.

If I refuse to fix all of my legal fees, it’s because the reality of serious startup law does not fall along some neat bell curve; not when you represent a diverse client base, with diverse goals beyond simply getting as big as possible as fast as possible. There is far more qualitative nuance to strategic lawyering than there is even in healthcare, where the goals are much cleaner, quality is more easily evaluated, and the base structure of each “client” (biology) is more uniform. Business goals are subjective, and the right outcome for one client may look totally different for another, requiring totally divergent, and unpredictable, levels of work. That requires flexibility, both in process and pricing.

Where the final outcome really matters, speed and low cost are not the top priorities. Leave room for flexibility and real strategic guidance, or you’ll move very fast and very cheaply right into a brick wall.

When a Startup Lawyer can’t scale.

TL;DR: If you’re building a scalable business, your main lawyer(s) need scalable infrastructure to ensure projects/deals can get handled correctly, promptly, and cost-effectively. Hire a startup lawyer who can’t scale, and when you need them most, they’ll be unavailable.

Background reading:

When I talk to seasoned founders about what they really want out of their company counsel, their responses largely boil down to 3 things: quality, responsiveness, and cost-effectiveness. Any good, single lawyer can at some point in time deliver all 3 of those, but not consistently, and not at scale. To do that it takes what I call, broadly, “infrastructure.” If you hire a lawyer who doesn’t have infrastructure — no matter how good they may be — you can expect a world of pain at the very moment that you need him/her most.

Law firm infrastructure includes:

  • Paralegals / Professional staff (like word processing) to handle necessary tasks that you don’t want a lawyer billing hundreds of dollars an hour for (like signature collection, option grants, state filings, etc.);
  • Technology and institutional knowledge, like automated templates, form libraries, etc. to streamline standardized processes to ensure lawyer time is spent on higher-value work;
  • Junior attorneys and appropriate training/compensation infrastructure for them, to keep work moving that is too complex for paralegals/staff, but not cost-effective for Partners to manage;
  • Other partners/senior attorneys to keep work moving when the main partner isn’t available (on another deal, on vacation, sick, etc.);
  • Access to niche specialists (IP, Tax, Employment, Commercial, etc.) to ensure answers on complex issues get the right subject matter expertise, though they don’t need to be within the same firm;
  • Experienced M&A (Mergers & Acquisitions) attorneys who specialize in high-stakes exit transactions, which require different expertise from venture capital/angel financing experts.

The clearest symptom of a startup lawyer who can’t scale is slowness, and as anyone with experience in the startup game knows, time kills deals. To a lawyer who’s seen hundreds of deals, your $500,000 seed financing may seem like just another small deal.  But to you it’ll feel like life and death, and you can’t wait weeks for your lawyer to get on it because he’s on vacation, out sick, or stuck in another deal without the right support infrastructure to ensure yours gets handled as well. 

I’ve known lawyers who dramatically underestimate how time consuming and expensive it can be to build and maintain legal infrastructure. They think they’ll just wait until they get busy enough and “just find someone.” It always blows up in their faces. Hiring specialized, highly qualified staff and attorneys is hard in any specialty area. Building a compensation structure that works mathematically but will attract and retain the people you need is even harder. Many lawyers can’t actually afford it. There is a world of difference between a single lawyer handling his own little portfolio of clients v. building a real firm that can handle hundreds of clients, day in and day out, with minimal hiccups. 

Even within very large firms, you might run into lawyers who are, effectively, solos. By this I mean that they lack the relationships/connections within their large firm to really ensure their clients will get served properly. Again, the clearest symptom is slowness. If clients are regularly having to follow up with a lawyer, solo or within a firm, because stuff is not getting done, that is a clear sign that you have a startup lawyer who can’t scale.

An easy way to vet a startup lawyer for whether she/he can scale is: 

  • Analyze their website: are there other lawyers/professionals with similar experience on their roster? Some solo lawyers, sensing that smart clients know they can’t scale, will brand themselves as a firm, when really their “firm” is nothing more than… a website.
  • Ask them: when you’re not available, who else do you have quick access to for ensuring my work gets done? Ask for names, and diligence.
  • Talk to their clients: find out what companies in your network already work with them, and ping them for feedback (on your own).

Small businesses who may need their lawyer for one non-urgent thing every year or so don’t need to worry about their lawyer’s scalability. But tech startups are, by nature, high-growth and need regular, consistent, and sometimes urgent legal bandwidth. And changing lawyers/firms can be a serious pain, and lead to mistakes.

Hire a startup lawyer that can scale to the level you expect your company to be within the next 5 years, or you’ll regret it.

Lawyers and NPS

TL;DR: Net Promoter Scores provide a clear, simple opportunity for law firms and clients to cut through the obfuscation and marketing nonsense of the legal industry, and understand who really delivers.

From my earliest days of law school, I knew I was going to have a little trouble relating to my chosen profession. Virtually all of my peers were devoting large amounts of their non-class time to something called “blue-booking,” which means learning a bunch of arbitrary rules for proper formatting of citations in legal journals, and “spotting” the errors in a long list of citations; a kind of hazing ritual to get onto a journal. I simply could not get over how the entire thing looked like a spectacularly boring, unproductive waste of my time. I was the only law student in my class at Harvard that I was aware of (I’m sure there were a few others) who never even applied to a journal or law review, and never touched a blue book.  I’ve done alright.

This “WTF are you all doing?” feeling carried on post law school. Moving into a large law firm setting, it was absolutely breathtaking how backward the workflows of lawyers were, and how powerless law firms, as institutions, were to change it. Why are they powerless? Here is my core diagnosis for the “problem” of most large law firms: they are not really firms. Or perhaps better said, no one is really in control. The vast majority of large law firms are decentralized, weakly unified collections of fiefdoms, each controlled by a partner who isn’t truly accountable to other partners, or a central hierarchy. Within a “firm,” a small group of people may have a great idea, or tool, for implementation, but absolutely zero ability to get it adopted firmwide.

Combine that with a power structure concentrated in the hands of (usually) traditional 50 and 60 year olds, and the fact that you usually have dozens of totally unrelated practice groups with independent needs, incentives, etc., and you see that the inertia and inefficiency of law firms is structural and cultural. People who blame the billable hour are focusing way too myopically on one thing, and ignoring the broader, deeper problem. Most law firms are simply too large, too broad, too decentralized, and too lacking in institutional brand power relative to the personal brands of their old school partners to implement needed changes. The only solution, in many cases, is a reset button.

So joining and building out a small boutique firm was my opportunity for a reset button, and I got it, along with an AMEX card to buy what I needed, without having to ask anyone for permission. Starting with a clean slate, and supported by a handful of senior partners with the right mindset, I was able to build a law practice that cut out all the bullshit and delivers what good clients want. What do clients really want, btw? Here are a few examples of what they don’t want:

What isn’t bullshit?

(i) awesome lawyers with specialized expertise,

(ii) who are responsive and DON’T LOSE E-MAILS,

(iii) provide real strategic insight and not just paper pushing,

(iv) are transparent about costs (w/o BS-ing that legal can be cheap), and

(v) can demonstrate their consistent efficiency and quality.

In building out our firm, I searched for a single, objective metric, minimally exposed to BS, for building accountability and clarity around our mission of delivering the above, and I found it: the Net Promoter Score. Our most recently calculated NPS is 77. Apple’s, Amazon’s, and Costco’s NPS range from the 70s and 80s, depending on where you check. Is it as high as we want to be? No. Every year we learn more, and iterate as we scale sustainably. The beauty of NPS, in addition to its simplicity, is how every client’s voice counts. Many law firms have built their brands around the 1% of their clients, with the complaints about slowness, low quality, conflicts of interest, costs, and other issues of the 99% drowned out.

NPS imposes a level of transparency that punishes anyone who isn’t disciplined with what clients they take on, to ensure consistent quality. It actually forces you to focus, because the needs of an unfocused client base are so broad, that you can’t deliver consistency. NPS punishes bloated, unfocused, overly extended scale. 

While we don’t have the structural problems of large firms, we definitely deal every day with the training, recruiting, technological, cultural, and business development challenges of any high-end service provider that handles complex, high-stakes human (as opposed to automated or manufactured) services.  But what matters most is that we have a score for today, for last year, and for next year, to gauge whether we are doing our job, instead of the 100 other things that other people love to talk about, but are not actually our job.

And what I’ve found most interesting, and compelling, is how when you focus your strategy around NPS, the competitive advantages you build are durable. So many of the ways that law firms try to compete in the market can be easily bought: a piece of software, a key lawyer with a big book of business,  a sponsored event where influencers get together, a side deal to a market player in exchange for referrals. But by being purchasable, they’re also easily replicable by anyone else with money.

Delivering scalable, consistent, long-term quality – what results in a high NPS score – is infinitely more complex and time consuming to build, especially when you’re dealing with lawyers. There’s no main “secret” behind what we’re doing. It’s 1,000 little insights and implementations, compounding daily.

My advice to lawyers contemplating starting their own firms is to always, first and foremost, get absolute clarity around (i) what clients they want and don’t want, and (ii) then ask those clients what they want; then start building, and collect your NPS regularly. Focus, and the ability to learn and iterate quickly, is the core strategic advantage of the boutique law firm ecosystem.

And my advice to potential clients when diligencing lawyers is to start out with one question: “What’s your NPS?”  The answer, even if it’s not a number, always speaks volumes.

The problem with chasing whales.

TL;DR: Always trying to work with “the best” people in any category – investors, advisors, accelerators, service providers – can result in your company getting far less attention and value than if you’d worked with people and firms who were more “right sized.”

Background reading:

Founders instinctively think that pursuing the “best” people in any category is always what’s best for their Company. Need VC? Try to get Sequoia or A16Z. Need an advisor? Who advised the founders of Uber and Facebook? Need an accounting or law firm? Who do the top tech companies use?

The problem with this approach is that it confuses “product” value delivery – where what you get is mass produced and therefore uniform – with “service” value delivery – which is heavily influenced by the individual attention you are given by specific people of varying quality within an organization.

If you buy the “best” car, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a billionaire or just comfortable, you paid for it, and you get effectively the same thing. Buying the “best” product gets you the best value.

Don’t chase whales if you’re not a whale.

However, if you hire the “best” accounting firm, that firm will have an “A” team, a “B” team, and possibly even a “C” team within it. That is a fact. Every large service-oriented organization has an understanding of who their best clients are, and allocates their best people and time to those clients, with the “lesser” clients often getting terrible service. To get the “best” service from one of the best service organizations, you need them to view you as one of their best clients; otherwise you’re going to get scraps.

To get real value from a “whale,” you need to be a whale yourself. Chase whales (the absolute best people in their category) without having the necessary weight to get their full attention, and they’ll just drown you. In many areas of business, getting the full attention and motivation of someone who is great, but not olympic medal level, can be far better for your company than trying to chase those who may take your money or your time, but will always treat you as second-class, or a number. I call this hiring “right sized” people. 

Firms matter, but specific people matter more.

I use this reasoning a lot in helping founders work through what VC funds they are talking to. The brand of the firm matters, but you want to know exactly what partners you are going to work with, and you want to talk to companies they specifically have worked on, to understand how much bandwidth you’re going to get. There is a wide range of quality levels between partners of VC firms, and going with someone local who will view you as their A-company and give you the time you need can be much more important than being second or third fiddle at a national marquee firm.

We also use this reasoning in explaining to clients how we see ourselves in the legal services market. We do not work for Uber or Facebook, and we are not even trying to work with the future Ubers or Facebooks, or other IPO-seeking companies of the world. The very high-growth, raise very large rounds in pursuit of an eventual billion-dollar exit via acquisition or IPO approach is suited for certain kinds of law firms and practices designed for those kinds of companies. Most of those firms are in Silicon Valley, because most of those companies are in Silicon Valley.

There was a time when every tech ecosystem looked to Silicon Valley for guidance, and did everything it could to get its attention. Now a lot of people outside of the largest tech ecosystems have come to realize that, in fact, Silicon Valley isn’t really that interested in them; and thats ok. Those SV funds, firms, and people are whales looking for other whales. That is totally fine – the world needs whales, but the rest of the world needs help too.

If you are a unicorn, or legitimately are viewed as on the track to be a unicorn, then working with VCs, advisors, law firms, and other service providers that cater to unicorns will get you great service by ensuring you are working with the top quality individual people within them.

Hire within your class.

However, a recurring trend we’ve seen in many areas, including legal, is companies initially hiring one of the national marquee firms because they wanted the “best,” only to realize that not only were they working with that firm’s B-player or C-player, but even getting responses to e-mails from a specific person was a matter of days and even weeks. By “right sizing” their service providers, they fixed the problem.

In short: be honest with yourself about what you’re building, and then be honest about whom you should build it with. If a $75MM or $100MM exit would be a true win for you, that is nothing to apologize for. The world needs those kinds of companies; lots of them. But to avoid a nightmare, align yourself with people truly “right sized” for a company on that kind of track.

When hiring any firm in any service industry, ask who exactly your main contact will be, and talk to the clients/portfolio companies of that specific person. Does their client base look a lot like the company you’re building? How responsive are they to you in your initial communications? That can tell you a lot about what level of bandwidth/priority you’re going to get from them.

For the kinds of strategic relationships that really matter, where the quality of advice depends on specific people and the attention they’ll give you, focus on “right sized” people; not just engaging the “best” firms. Don’t get pulled under water by chasing a whale that isn’t really that interested in you.