Legal Technical Debt

Siri, please amend my charter to authorize a Series AA round, prep me an offer letter for a CTO, issue options to 3 recent hires… oh and review/execute that stock purchase agreement with my accelerator. Keep the fees under $500.”  — Not too far off from how a (confused delusional) segment of the startup community thinks startup/vc law should work.

Imagine if advisors told startup founders that, in order to conserve cash, they should aim to spend as little as possible on developers. Find cheap ones. If the non-technical CEO can code something himself to get by, do so.  Just get it done. Don’t overpay.  In fact, if we can automate our development process, do it. Keep cash spend on ‘the business.’

Anyone with an ounce of experience in building successful tech companies would recognize this advice as absurd and dangerous, as if quality and accuracy are irrelevant. Yet every so often I hear about advisors giving this exact advice to founders, about legal spend. And while fewer may acknowledge it, such advice is equally as absurd.

Of course you’d say that, Jose. You’re a startup lawyer.

Well, maybe. But let’s process it a bit.

Why would minimizing your spend on software development (like legal services) be stupid and dangerous?

It can be explained in part with the term ‘technical debt.’ via Wikipedia:

“Technical debt… is a recent metaphor referring to the eventual consequences of any system design, software architecture or software development within a codebase. The debt can be thought of as work that needs to be done before a particular job can be considered complete or proper. If the debt is not repaid, then it will keep on accumulating interest, making it hard to implement changes later on. Unaddressed technical debt increases software entropy.”

While I’m not a developer, my general understanding of the term is that bad coding becomes more expensive to fix over time, in an almost compounding way. And there are even circumstances in which it is so bad that nothing short of a complete re-write will make it scalable and useable. In other words, going cheap on developers just means you are compounding your cleanup cost and headaches for the future, and even threatening a complete shut-down of the product.

Minimizing legal spend works exactly in this way, but magnified 10x.  I frequently write on SHL about the many parallels between complex contract drafting/VC law and top software developers. Both groups involve highly skilled people capable of analyzing, managing, and manipulating large amounts of complexity. Both implement changes for which the stakes on a company are very high. Both expect to be compensated well for their skill set.

Software developers produce the code base on which your product runs. Lawyers produce the code base on which your company, including its relationships with investors, board members, executives, and employees, runs. 

A crucial difference between software code and legal code is that bugs are far easier to find and fix in the former than in the latter. Software code is constantly being revised, with thousands or millions of users revealing bugs on a regular basis. Legal code (contracts) are executed and then put away, often to be reviewed only at high-stakes moments, when fixing them is extremely expensive or even impossible.

Unlike software code, you can’t unilaterally issue ‘updates’ to executed contracts. Any experienced lawyer has seen a deal cost 6-figures more than it should have, or even completely die, because of legal mistakes made earlier in the company’s history. So think of contract drafting for a scaled startup as high-stakes software development for which virtually any material bug is completely unacceptable once the code is shipped. Still want to ‘minimize’ legal spend?

Law is Code; Not Product.

In my experience dealing with many many sets of founders, a part of the startup community carries the very deep misconception that startup/vc law has been, or even can be, completely productized. Want to ‘just’ issue some stock, grant some options, close a seed round, etc? It’s been done hundreds of times before, so it must be all ‘standard’ by now. Just click a few buttons, fill in some names and numbers, and you’re done.

This is the attitude of someone using a product for which clean, standard, predictable, pre-defined features are already in place. “Just” issuing a service provider some stock should be like ‘just’ moving some files around on Dropbox, right? There’s a serious flaw in this thinking. The clean, standard, predictable company and contract history simply does not exist, and hence full automation is pure fiction. 

  • What state are you located in? Laws vary, even if you’re a standard DE corp.
  • Are you a C-corp? S-corp?
  • Are there protective provisions that need to be complied with?
  • Any anti-dilution protection?
  • Enough authorized shares in the charter?
  • Enough reserved equity in the equity plan?
  • A well-documented value of the equity?
  • Is there a written agreement explaining the consideration and complying with securities laws?
  • Is the recipient an individual or an entity?
  • Board approval?
    • Are we confident the composition of the Board is well-documented?
  • Is stockholder approval necessary?
    • Any specific thresholds?
  • Vesting?
    • 83b?
  • Acceleration? What kind?
  • Any other special provisions/requirements implemented by past investors?
  • etc. etc. etc.

Virtually every VC, angel group, accelerator, large company, etc. has its unique variances in the contracts it executes/negotiates. States have different requirements. Laws change. Reality: people are not standardized.  They have their idiosyncrasies, and people determine what does and doesn’t get signed; what gets added to the code base.

Even if companies share 90% of the same legal DNA, the 10% variance is a massive wrench that makes automation, or even any kind of significant simplification, impossible without taking on enormous legal technical debt. That statement is not coming from a luddite lawyer who hates technology, but from the CTO of a startup/vc law practice that I am 100% certain is on the cutting edge of legal technology (the kind that actually works) adoption.

Telling a VC lawyer that you ‘just’ want to issue some stock is not equivalent to ‘just’ using a pre-coded feature in a product. It is far more like telling a software developer that you ‘just’ want to add a feature to your existing, non-standard, unique code base.  Imagine telling that developer to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible. Imagine hiring the cheapest developer you can find to implement that feature.

The contract that actually issues the stock may be 99.8% standard, but it has to be implemented into the historical set of contracts/context without blowing anything up. Contracts and laws do not sit in little, isolated modules without any impact on the other. They’re all inter-connected, with a change in one potentially resulting in a cascade of effects in others. Hence the code base analogy.  The larger, more complex the code base (set of contracts, number of jurisdictions, people involved), the greater the skill and experience required to work with it safely. And having a well thought-out, well-designed architecture implemented from Day 1 dramatically impacts the scalability and resilience of that code base.

So when a client says they ‘just’ want to issue some stock, all they might think about is opening a word document, filling some names, and signing. Of course that can be automated.  What often isn’t considered is the lengthy, complicated list of steps and analysis needed to fit that template document within the Company’s existing legal history. That, not the template stock purchase agreement, is what lawyers do, and software cannot do.

De-Valuing Law, like De-velopers, is De-lusional.

Anyone who sells a product or service into a market learns that not every buyer is willing to pay the cost necessary to deliver that product or service in an efficient manner, within the bounds of physics/reality.  Some buyers simply can’t afford it. But many others just don’t value the product or service enough to pay even the lowest possible price. As a lawyer, I learned very early on in my career that this is the case with founders looking to engage lawyers.

If I’ve been sold the lie that startup/vc law is a completely commoditized, standard product, I am going to shop for lawyers, and assess cost, the way I would for any other commoditized, standard product. I “just” want to issue some stock. Like I “just” want some toilet paper. There are founders (a minority, but many) who understand very quickly why they need to pay good compensation for software developers, and yet will question every single invoice from lawyers.

While I’m always more than happy to walk through an invoice when it makes sense, MEMN’s client intake process has been deliberately designed to filter out clients who, for whatever reason, de-value lawyers in this way.  Our website’s home page says “World Class Counsel, Brought Down to Earth.” Translation: top lawyers who are more efficient, responsive, and accessible than the large firms where they’ve historically been found. We compete with other firms who provide top-tier legal counsel to scaling tech companies; not with the unrealistic price expectations of people who, through inexperience or delusion, want Teslas at Kia prices.

The seed-stage period is the toughest time for startup legal budgeting. Things are starting to get more complex, but with only a few hundred thousand raised (let’s put aside California ‘seed’ rounds), every dollar paid hurts. Fixed fees, flexible payment arrangements, deferrals (but be careful), and good old-fashioned budgeting are the key to getting through that period with your lawyers. Any experienced set of startup/vc lawyers will know how to be flexible for seed-stage companies. Just always remember that flexibility (and efficiency) does not mean defying the laws of physics to get things as cheap as you’d like them to be. 

At the level of law that scaling companies require, technology will forever (or at least into the very distant future) remain a complement and not a replacement for lawyers. Yes, the legal industry as a whole is and will continue to undergo disruption as software eats up the more routine, commoditized parts of the profession. But VC-backed companies are not dealing with commoditized lawyers, and talented, creative VC lawyers are hardly, not even remotely, underemployed.  If anything, those of us who adopt new tools as they are developed have found our practices enhanced, not diminished, by technology.  It allows us to deliver more concentrated value with our time, which means a healthier attorney-client relationship overall.

If you engage your lawyers as the developers of an important foundation for your company – expecting effectiveness and efficiency, but staying realistic about the amount of complexity and value actually underlying their work, you’ll be surprised by the rewards.  For those who continue fantasizing about replacing lawyers entirely with apps, nothing will provide a better education than the moment the debt comes due.

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.

Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros

TL;DR Nutshell: If in today’s connected startup ecosystems, with today’s tools and resources, a founder CEO still needs his (paid) lawyer to introduce him to investors, there’s a very good chance he can’t build a company. And most investors know that.

Background Reading:

Certain law firms I come across love to use the following biz dev pitch: “our firm has close relationships with many investors, and we love helping make intros to them for our clients.” Some have even attempted to institutionalize this into an entire department within their firms.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Lawyers are constantly interacting with investors, so they must be a great shortcut to getting intros, right? Not so fast.

A paid intro is generally worse than no intro, particularly in today’s ecosystems. 

I wrote Don’t Ask Your Startup Lawyer for Investor Intros about a year and a half ago, in which I made the following argument:

  • Early-stage investing is at least as much about betting on founders, particularly CEOs, as it is about betting on a particular business.
  • Because investors see 100-1000x more companies than they can fund, or even assess, they heavily rely on filters/signals to judge the quality of founding teams.
  • The way in which a CEO obtains an investor intro (and from whom) speaks volumes about that CEOs ability to network, persuade, and generally hustle; all of which are extremely important skills for a successful founder CEO.
  • There are far more ways, today, to get connected with investors and find true, authentic warm referrals – AngelList, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerators, etc. – than there were even 5-10 years ago.
  • Therefore, in a world in which there are 100s of possible paths to get introduced to an investor, the fact that your lawyer (someone you are paying) ends up making the intro can send an extremely negative message about the founding team – including that they can’t hustle, can’t convince anyone else in their ecosystem (that they aren’t paying) to introduce them, or both. Samir Kaji emphasizes this last point, about a weak intro making investors think negatively about the founders, in his post.

At the time I published that post, most people providing feedback on it agreed, but I had a few dissenters – generally lawyers arguing that they’ve made successful intros themselves. I don’t doubt that they’re telling the truth, but what was telling is that few could give examples of successful intros in recent years – and my point is very time-contextual. Even five years ago, relationships within startup communities were far more opaque than they are today, and an intro from a lawyer didn’t have nearly the level of negative signaling then that it does now.

But one pattern become obvious that relates to another point I’ve made before:

For a lawyer’s investor intro to not have a negative signal for a particular investor, the lawyer and investor must have a very close relationship, and that means you shouldn’t want that lawyer representing your company in a deal with that investor.

See: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

There absolutely are particular lawyers who have very close relationships with particular investors, much more than other lawyers who simply run into those investors on deals and on boards (professional acquaintances). The issue is that those close relationships develop, nine times out of ten, from those lawyers working for those investors. And for reasons that should be obvious (but if they aren’t, read the above post), the last lawyer you want representing your company in a VC deal is the lawyer who is BFFs with the VCs you are negotiating with.

So maybe some lawyers can make a decent intro… but you shouldn’t work with them… which makes it significantly less likely that they’ll make the intro. Life is complicated.

Other founders, particularly well-respected ones and especially those who’ve been funded by an investor, are the best source of referrals. Other well-respected, non-service providers (advisors, accelerators, angels, etc.) are the second best. Anyone you are paying comes dead last.

Jeff Bussgang has a great post on how to ‘rank’ different potential paths to investors – Getting Introductions to Investors – The Ranking Algorithm. His hierarchy makes a lot of sense. And aside from other founders being the best source of referrals, they are absolutely the best source of intel on investors, when you’re diligencing them. If a group of VCs have provided you a term sheet and you aren’t actively (but discreetly) talking with their portfolio founders to understand what working with those VCs is actually like, you’re doing it wrong.

As ecosystems become more transparent, and prospecting tools become more sophisticated, investors may be relying less on referrals anyway.

I found the data reported by First Round Capital in their 10 year Project to be pretty interesting, including the data suggesting that First Round’s referred investments significantly underperformed relative to investments that First Round hunted on their own. Honestly, this isn’t that surprising.

A lot of studies on investor performance emphasize that, while many people get lucky with one or two home-runs, the people who consistently outperform the market are those who actively take a process, data-oriented approach, and try their best to counteract their biases. That doesn’t mean success in VC is about number crunching, but it does mean that if your personal relationships are the main way that you find companies, you’re going to have a lot more sources of bias in your decision-making than someone who takes a broader, but more calculated approach.

In short, we live in a very different world from the one in which VCs sat in their offices relying on proprietary, somewhat opaque deal flow sources. In that world, lawyers were a better source of investor intros. That world no longer exists. Investors fund hustlers, and (today) hustlers don’t need their lawyers to introduce them to investors.

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.”

A Startup Lawyer is Not a Founder’s Lawyer

TL;DR Nutshell: It’s extremely important to hire independent counsel who isn’t incentivized to favor, because of existing relationships, the interests of your investors above those of the company.  But it’s also important to understand that company counsel represents the best interests of the company, including all stockholders, and that can often conflict with the personal interests of individual founders.

Background Reading:

A core message that I’ve focused on via SHL can be summarized as follows: many influencers for a startup, particularly investors, will often push founders to use their own preferred lawyers as company counsel, but given the amount of confidential information your lawyers will have access to, and the degree to which you will rely on their counsel for key strategic decisions, ensuring your lawyers’ impartiality is extremely important.  Naval Ravikant put it well in Lawyers or Insurance Salesmen?

Don’t just go with the lawyer that the VCs insist upon. These lawyers will work with the VC on a hundred financings and with you on only one. Where do you think their loyalties lie? Get your own lawyer, and don’t budge.” -Naval Ravikant

This post is about a related, but very different point: hiring a law firm that impartially represents the company is not (and cannot be) the same thing as hiring a firm that represents the founders. Company counsel is not founder counsel.  An analogy may be helpful for explaining the difference:

Imagine a family that is going through some tough times – the spouses are in constant disagreement over issues like work-life balance and parenting responsibility, and it’s starting to impact their children. They seek the advice of a family therapist.

The family therapist does not represent one spouse or the other, nor does she represent the children. She represents the family, as an entity/unit that exists apart from the individuals that make it up. Like a family therapist whose priority is the well-being of the family above the individual members, company counsel’s responsibility is the interests of the company as a whole unit, including all of its stockholders, not just the interests of the founders, or the CEO who hired the lawyer.

At Formation

At the very early stages of a startup, this company counsel v. founder counsel distinction is often not terribly relevant, because the founders, as a fact, are the entire company; they make up the entire cap table. Though I have been in situations where disagreement among founders requires me to drive home the fact that, as company counsel, I do not represent one particular founder over another. Company counsel represents the pie as a whole, not any particular slice of it.

In a Financing

In negotiating a financing, the company v. founder counsel distinction is typically far less important than the company v. investor counsel distinction (the first point discussed above). Investors (who should hire their own lawyers) have a desire to maximize their ownership of the company and secure as much potential exit value as they can, at the expense of the ownership stake of the remaining cap table. Company counsel’s primary role in a financing is to advise the existing stockholders of the Company (particularly the common stockholders, making up founders and employees) on balancing their desire for investment with their desire to not give up significant ownership or control to outsiders.

Post-Financing and Exits

It’s after a financing that the company v. founder counsel distinction becomes very important. One of the primary fiduciary duties of a company’s Board of Directors is to maximize aggregate shareholder value (the entire pie), and Company counsel’s role, apart from day-to-day general counsel, is to advise the Board on various matters (like acquisition offers, strategic partnerships, etc.) that influence shareholder value. The reality is that advising the company/board on maximizing total shareholder value is often very much aligned with the interests of the common stockholders (including founders); more so than with investors.

Investors will have a liquidation preference that allows them to be paid something in an exit before any value goes to the common, so there are many scenarios in which they (investors) may favor an exit that the common stockholders do not support. A company counsel that is focused on advising for what maximizes exit value for all is usually indirectly working in the best interests of the common stockholders.

Nevertheless, there can be a number of situations in which company counsel’s focus on the best interests of the company and all stockholders (preferred and common) is not aligned with the personal interests of a particular founder. For example, a founder CEO may want to negotiate for an employment agreement that makes it extremely expensive, almost impossible, to fire her. While providing some protection to a CEO, so that she can focus on value creation and not her personal financial security, can be value maximizing for everyone (that’s why employment agreements are signed), there is definitely a point after which you’re giving too much to the CEO and just unjustifiably entrenching her.

In that kind of scenario, company counsel’s role is to make it clear to the founder that he’s looking out for the company, which certainly includes the founder, but also includes other stockholders. If the founder wants to negotiate heavily for an employment agreement that is biased in her favor, knowing that entrenching herself isn’t the best option for the company, she may want to hire her own lawyer (apart from company counsel). Many times in these scenarios (I’ve experienced) founders are fine not hiring their own personal lawyers, because on some level they too are interested in what’s good for the company as a whole.  There’s a certain dysfunctionality that tends to sink companies when founders have detached their personal motivations from the well-being of the company generally. But it depends heavily on the circumstances, including the composition of the cap table and the Board, the stage of the company, and the personal dynamics between the founder, investors, and even the lawyer(s).

In the same sense that we, as a firm, have a established a policy of not representing early-stage investment funds who invest in our clients (to preserve trust), we also avoid representing founders as their personal counsel. Apart from the fact that law firms are often overkill for that kind of personal representation (solo lawyers are usually a better fit), we prefer to make it clear to all parties that we are company counsel from Day 1.  When high-stakes situations require us to advise on what’s best for the company, we don’t want any side phone calls (from either side) asking for favors.

Quality founders who build strong companies should want company counsel who will speak with a high level of objectivity on key issues involving corporate governance, even if it’s not exactly what the founders would, personally, prefer to hear. No truly successful family has ever been built by people all fighting for their own interests at the expense of the whole. The same goes for startups and their founders.