Non-Competes

TL;DR: Post-employment non-competes are generally not enforceable in California. Given how much content around tech entrepreneurship originates from California, you might get the impression that not having non-competes in startup employment agreements is the norm across the country. You’d be wrong.

The whole non-compete debate in tech circles is fun to watch. Certain people try to paint it in simplistic “good v. bad” terms. The champions of innovation who believe “talent should move freely,” v. the traditionalist ogres representing entrenched BigCo’s. But as you’ll hear me repeatedly say on this blog: watch incentives. Where you stand depends on where you sit. 

Imagine for a second that we’re sitting in a God-like seat, where we can push the population of a country in one of two directions.

Option A: People will have more babies, but die sooner.

Option B: People will have fewer babies, but live longer.

Now imagine there’s a debate among two sets of constituents as to which option should be pushed forward. The first group are the people currently living in that country. The second group are foreign shareholders in a conglomerate that sells (i) baby clothes, and (ii) coffins. Think there’s disagreement?

Get my point? Maybe a “Hunger Games” metaphor would’ve worked better. I’ll elaborate.

Ecosystem v. Individual Incentives

The debate over non-competes has a few core elements to it. First, it pits ecosystem v. individual incentives, which I’ve discussed in a few places on this blog. I’m fairly confident that if you remove the ability for employers and employees to agree (voluntarily) to have non-competes in their employment docs, the end-result is more companies and more bargaining power for employees (obviously); which is to say, it probably does net-out to faster ecosystem growth.

But if I’m an entrepreneur who has already started a company, I give far far more shits about the specific company I’ve sunk my sweat and tears into than about your “ecosystem.” Your ecosystem is not going to produce an ROI on my “one shot” investment.

However, if I’m a venture capitalist, angel investor, or run an accelerator, my ROI is tied to the ecosystem; I have portfolio, not “one shot” incentives. I benefit from incentivizing hyper-competition and the creation of new companies, even if it threatens the existence of those who are currently working on their “one shot.”

ps, it also increases the need for capital to fund talent wars. Watch incentives.

From an evolutionary perspective, you better believe it would help the human species if people died sooner and reproduced more. You also better believe the people currently alive might have a slightly different perspective on the matter.

So putting aside moralizing judgments, everyone discussing the non-compete issue needs to first acknowledge the reality of their misaligned incentives.

Grandstanding

Secondly, because so many people on the entrepreneurial/employer side, particularly in Silicon Valley (where there is an extremely^2 competitive labor market), are so concerned about being seen as “that awesome person/company that just LOVES employees and you really really really should want to work for,” there is very much a reluctance to speak honestly on this issue. You’ve got companies offering doggy daycare and daily massages to try to hold onto their roster. They sure as hell aren’t going to go on the record saying “yeah, it would be nice if we could have non-competes.”

So it doesn’t surprise me that most of the public content on the issue involves people grandstanding about the values of innovation, disruption, free talent flow, etc., and how they support outright bans on non-competes. The law (in California) is already there – they can’t have non-competes, and that’s not changing – so why on earth would I counter its logic publicly, when deviating from the script will hurt my recruiting efforts?

There’s a very similar dynamic going on here with the 90-day exercise period on employee options. Putting aside the legal and tax nuances around it, so much of the public content coming out of SV on it paints it as total BS and just a way for employers to “screw” employees.

Summary:

  1. Asking employees to commit to a 1-year non-compete is just employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.
  2. Asking employees to exercise their options within 90 days of leaving the company, or forgo the equity, is also employers “screwing” employees. Nothing more.

Is not offering doggy day care “screwing” employees as well? Asking for a friend, in California.

“Non-competes and employee option expiration are outrageous! We’d NEVER do that to employees!”

Translation: “We’re hiring! Chef-prepared veganic meals daily. All you can drink Soylent.”

Employers (including current entrepreneurs) have wants and needs. Employees have wants and needs. Startup investors have wants and needs. And many of them conflict. Acknowledging it, instead of finger-pointing and grandstanding, makes debate possible.

Humanize the Issue

I’m very much a fan of humanizing complex business issues; which to me means distilling them down to basic norms and ethics of human interaction. It’s easy to get caught up in cold business calculus when you talk about “employers” and “employees,” instead of reducing the issue down to people simply bargaining with each other.

Say I’ve spent years building up a family restaurant, with all of my special recipes, business contacts, processes, etc., and I invite you to come work with me. I’m going to teach you everything about the business; all of my secrets. But to ensure I can trust that you aren’t just going to take everything I teach you and use it somewhere else, I ask you to agree not to compete with us for a year if you leave.

Am I an asshole? Or am I simply protecting myself somewhat from betrayal. I can think of lots of human scenarios in which this kind of bargain is perfectly acceptable and reasonable. And with my libertarian tendencies, I don’t feel comfortable with the government dictating that me and my prospective employee can’t simply agree among ourselves what the right bargain is.

And now we’ll have the necessary rebuttals.

But this isn’t about family restaurants, Jose. This is about Google and Apple trying to keep powerless employees from choosing where they want to work.

Is it really? You think the Pre-Series A entrepreneur with 10 employees isn’t exposed to a key employee walking with everything she’s learned and taking it somewhere else?  There are valid arguments for why non-competes need to be right-sized for the circumstances, and why perhaps very large corporations shouldn’t get the same benefits from them as smaller businesses. And also that lower-level staff should get more freedom than employees closer to core IP/trade secrets. Courts already think about them this way.

And let’s also stop playing the violins for a second. Are today’s tech employees, especially in startup ecosystems, really powerless?

But confidentiality provisions and other IP protections still protect companies, even without non-competes.

Trust me, it is 100x as expensive to prove in court that someone stole your trade secrets than it is to point to a paragraph in an employment agreement and be done with it. Google and Apple have the resources to fully enforce their IP confidentiality. Most small companies / startups do not. Today, total banning of non-competes may help Goliaths more than Davids.

But removing non-competes requires employers to hold onto their employees in other ways.

I get it. Government reduces the power of an employer, so the employee now has more leverage. Employee therefore gets better treatment. Wonderful. But the point of this post is that employees aren’t the only people in the business ecosystem that matter, and there are valid arguments on the other side that are worth hearing.

Non-Competes are the Norm. 

Outside of California, non-competes are the norm, and they can be valuable, among the many other bargaining mechanisms, between employers and employees. They can help provide a foundation of trust, which allows employers to invest in their employees for the long-term.

Maybe you’re so gung-ho on the total free flow of talent and “ecosystems” that you absolutely want to forgo non-competes. That’s perfectly fine. Every company is different, and has its own culture. But at least understand why your counterparts at other companies may think differently about the situation, and offer alternatives. That’s how healthy labor markets are built.

The right answer on non-competes probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two polarized sides. On the one hand, it is definitely unfair for a powerful 20,000 employee behemoth to be able to restrict even a secretary from working at a competitor. I think we can all agree on that, and the courts already do. But that doesn’t mean the same rules should be applied to the key employee at a 10-employee startup.

On the other hand, there is a valid argument that the level of hyper competition in Silicon Valley is not something other ecosystems should try to totally replicate. It may lead to talent wars, which waste resources on frivolous perks, and require larger rounds of capital. It may also hurt the ability of companies to invest in their talent for the long-term, because they’re constantly worried about that talent being bought out by a better capitalized competitor.

We should all agree that there are valid points to be made on both sides, and valid disagreement as to what a “healthy” startup ecosystem really looks like. The grandstanding and obfuscation of misaligned incentives is the problem.

Transparency, Risk, and Failure

TL;DR: In the very uncertain, high risk environment of an early-stage startup, the most successful founders are extremely good at practical risk mitigation. One of the most important forms of risk mitigation is to build a culture of transparency and honesty at all levels of the company; meaning people say what they’re thinking/feeling, and do what they say they’re going to do. No politics. No surprises.

Background Reading:

One of the biggest myths, in my experience, about successful entrepreneurs is that they are generally risk-seeking, risk-loving, uber-optimists who fearlessly run right into unknown unknowns, expecting things to turn out for the best. It’s just false. My word for the person I just described is “idiot.”

Yes, they are optimists, but what they’re often optimistic about is their risk mitigation skills. To an outsider, they may look fearless and indifferent toward risk. But in their mind they’re constantly analyzing risks, including seeing risks that others don’t see (the paranoid survive), and actively taking steps to address them.

In the early days of a company, without a doubt one of the largest sources of risk is, to put it simply, people. Co-founders, employees, consultants, commercial partners, investors, advisors, etc. Before your company has become a fully greased and well-running machine with an established brand, market presence, and gravitational pull, it is, in large part, a highly fragile vision of the future; dependent, to the extreme, on a handful of people and their ability to execute toward a common goal. It takes just one “bad” person, or decision, or accident, in that group to bring it all crashing down. 

Each person carries around risks; either risks that originate from them, or risks they know more about than others. Examples:

Co-founders: Are they truly satisfied with their equity stake/position at the company, and committed to the cause? Do they feel like the CEO is the right person for that position, and making the right decisions, with the right input?

Employees: Are they happy with their compensation/position, given the resources and stage of the company, or are they already planning an exit? Do they feel like the company is moving in the right direction? Are there behaviors/activities going on at the company that the C-suite should know about, but maybe aren’t aware of?

Commercial partners: Are their intentions the ones they’ve actually stated at the negotiation table? If circumstances or incentives change, will they try to preserve the relationship or at least reasonably negotiate a fair break, or will they try to maximize one-sided gains?

Investors: Do they truly believe the current executive team can execute effectively at the current stage of the company, and if not, have they communicated their thoughts to the team? If they are planning for changes, are they letting the team know, so the process can be open and balanced?

By working with people with a heavy bias toward transparency and honesty, you maximize your visibility into risks, which maximizes your ability to proactively address them. Risks that take you by surprise are 100x more deadly than those you can see coming. But what does transparency mean, and how do you find it?

Transparency means:

  • Saying what you’re truly thinking, feeling, and planning to do, instead of what may be optimal for you to convey in a short-term self-interested sense;
  • Even if you’re not the best at verbalizing your thoughts/feelings, conveying them in other non-verbal ways – transparent people tend to show more emotion. The perpetually sterile, calculated, always careful not to speak off-script demeanor that all of us encounter in business is the opposite of what you should look for.

It does not mean blurting out your thoughts at random without proper self-awareness or sense of propriety, or conveying more information than specific people really need to know. The “radical transparency” I’ve read about in some circles – for example, the idea that everyone needs to know everyone’s compensation – in my mind is asking for trouble. There is always information that the CEO has that should be heavily filtered before it gets to employee #200, and visa versa. But a thoughtful, respectful, durable culture of transparency ensures that the right information flows to the right people who truly need it and can benefit from it. 

It also does not mean always being the nicest, most agreeable person in the room.  Sycophants and glad handers may keep the peace, but at a cost of smothering you with so much bullshit that you can’t hear the things you really should be hearing. There is an art to conveying uncomfortable information, and people can be trained/coached for it, but it will always still be somewhat uncomfortable.

I’ve been very happily married for almost 10 years (this December!), but I’ll be damned if I ever tell you that hasn’t come with conflict. If anyone ever tells me that they’re in a serious, complex relationship that is completely conflict free, I hear one word in my mind, and one word only: divorce. Small conflicts prevent massive ones. If there is honesty and transparency, there will be some conflict, and it will make you stronger. 

And of course, if you’ve struggled to find, attract, and retain people who are honest and trustworthy, a very good place to analyze the problem is a mirror. Company culture is very much a reflection of the people who started it. Be the person you expect others to be.  And if you want transparency, don’t penalize people when they act accordingly.

At the end of the day, transparency is the foundation of trust in relationships, and the data is universally clear that virtually nothing helps teams, businesses, and broader networks thrive (and minimize serious conflict) better than trust. In the world of startups, there are hundreds of sources of potential failure that you are constantly battling against, and that you can’t do a lot about. Very very few risk mitigation tools are in as much of the founders’ control as the culture they implement in their team from Day 1.

Do the intentional, hard work up-front to recruit/engage people who say what they’re thinking, and do what they say they’re going to do, and you’ll maximize your chances of survival. You’ll also keep your legal fees way lower in the process.

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.

Vesting Schedules – Beyond the Standard

TL;DR: The standard 4-year with a 1-year cliff vesting schedule is not the only option. Companies can use a number of alternatives to better align incentives, and even select for employees/founders with more loyalty and interest in long-term commitment.

This is not a post explaining what vesting schedules are – I make it a point to (try to) not duplicate content that others have already written about 10x on the web. See this post for a quick run-down.

Most people know that the “market standard” vesting schedule is 4-years with a 1-year cliff. That’s standard for employees, but also quite common for founders. I occasionally hear founders say that a founder team shouldn’t subject each other to a cliff, but generally I think that’s a bad idea. Some kind of cliff is a great way of ensuring that anyone there on Day 1 intends to be there for some meaningful amount of time. If they balk at a cliff, it says something; not entirely clear what it says, but it certainly says something of significance.

Advisors tend to have shorter schedules, like 1-2 years, because their grants are smaller and tenure tends to also be shorter. At least a 3-month cliff is always a good idea for advisors, in my opinion. If they balk, it, again, says something.  Making small, reasonable requests in any kind of relationship, and observing the response carefully, can be a great way to gauge a person’s personality, motivations, and perspective; even if you consider the request itself immaterial and easy to drop. 

However, for companies that feel like the standard approach doesn’t fit their context, or align incentives properly, there are a lot of smart alternatives that we’ve seen our client base adopt. Here are a few:

Milestone Vesting

Instead of vesting based on time, you set it to occur upon certain milestones. These can be any number of things: achieving a certain financing, a certain revenue level, hitting a sales quota, etc. Whenever we see milestone vesting, the milestones tend to be contextualized for the individual. And certainly it only makes sense to have milestones that the individual recipient of the stock actually plays a lead role in achieving.

The benefit of milestone vesting is it can, when it works, better align “earning” equity with actually delivering results, as opposed to simple tenure based on time. However, the challenges that arise are (i) in the drafting – getting people to agree on reasonable milestones, (ii) in deciding when they’ve been achieved – who ultimately decides? the Board? the CEO?, and (iii) when circumstances change and ambiguity arises as to whether the milestone has been met. And of course, it is just more of a hassle to have to track milestones for vesting purposes as opposed to just letting the clock tick.

My strong suggestion to clients whenever they go with milestone vesting is to stick to milestones with objective, unambiguous metrics. Stay away from anything that depends on someone’s opinion – like “doing X to the satisfaction of Y person.” You’re just asking for trouble if you go there. Something like “achieving $X in cumulative customer revenue” will result in far far fewer disputes. And remember to use milestones that the stock recipient plays a significant role in helping the Company achieve. That too will prevent arguments over unfairness or bad faith as to person Y being responsible for why person X didn’t get their vested equity.

Longer Schedules (5-6 years)

There is a lot of value in attracting employees who intend to be with your company for the long-haul, as opposed to those who hop between employers. The sense of long-term thinking and loyalty that a long-term employee can bring to key projects can be hugely important strategically. I’ve always found the “perk wars” of certain tech ecosystems to be somewhat counter-productive, as they tend (in my mind) to select for employees with more mercenary personalities, as opposed to people who want to be there for much more important reasons.

I’ve certainly applied that thinking to how I recruit for MEMN.  Honestly, if whether or not we offer free lunch or doggy sitting will influence your decision to work for us, I’d prefer you not.

Companies that deeply value long-term commitment will often consider having longer-than-standard vesting schedules; maybe 5 or 6 years. Of course, for this to work you generally need to provide an appropriately larger equity stake.  Someone might ask why not, instead of one grant with a longer schedule, simply committing to do another grant after the standard 4-years?

It’s true that you can do that, and the standard approach is to provide ‘fresh’ grants to employees, for retention purposes, once their original vesting schedules run their course. However, (i) a grant made years later will have a higher exercise/purchase price (for tax purposes), so it’s actually tax favorable to do an earlier grant with a larger schedule, and (ii) there’s something about a longer schedule that just signals a person’s long-term commitment better, particularly if coupled with back-weighted vesting (see below).

Back-Weighted Schedules

If you’re looking to use vesting schedules as a way to gauge long-term commitment, back-weighted vesting is definitely an option worth considering. The concept is quite simple. Instead of vesting in equal installments over a schedule, the back-end of the schedule provides more vesting than the front-end. So instead of 25% vesting per year, Year 1 may be only 10%, but Year 4 may be 40%. There is definitely some logic to this idea, because the value someone delivers to their employer tends to go up over time, as they’ve become integrated into the culture, moved up in rank, taken on more responsibility, etc.

A longer-than-standard schedule with back-weighted vesting is one of the strongest messages you can send as to how much significance the Company places on loyalty and long-term employment. And as I mentioned before, if someone really balks at the idea, pay attention to what that tells you, because it definitely tells you something.

For key hires, the standard doesn’t always fit. 

I hear it all the time: “just go with what’s standard.” I understand that approach, and it’s sometimes driven by an attitude that all of this legal mumbo jumbo doesn’t matter. Except for when it does.

For strategic hires, particularly in the very early days of a Company when your core team will totally make or break you, non-standard vesting schedules can be a valuable tool to align incentives, and “filter” for people who may not be as committed to the cause as you think they are. Remember: when someone says “no” to something you think is reasonable, it may not be fully clear why, but it tells you something. And that something can be very important. 

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.