Almost exactly a year go, I wrote a post (The Economic Deflation of Startup Law) in which I (i) documented how the rapid adoption of technology and standardized contract language in early-stage startup law was dramatically deflating the cost of quality (crappy law has always been affordable) legal services available for founders, and (ii) made a few predictions about how this might affect the segment of the legal market that serves early-stage tech entrepreneurs.
- Contractual Changes – Standardization of contract language within law firms & the emergence of universally standardized documents like the NVCA model docs, Series AA, and Techstars Docs, to name a few.
- Technological Changes – Proofing software, Document Automation, Electronic Closing, etc. – reducing the amount of lawyer time required to complete a formation, bridge financing, etc.
- Operational Changes – Technology and standardization simplify the labor input required to complete a transaction, allowing less trained, less expensive professionals to perform more of the back-end work.
- Deal Platforms – Technology is moving from being merely a tool within the traditional law firm process to a bilateral platform that allows parties on both sides of a transaction to close, from beginning to end, with significantly less lawyer time required.
- Freemium Startup Law – Very early-stage legal work (formations, bridge/seed financings, routine forms), once the bread-and-butter of solo lawyers and boutiques serving entrepreneurs, will no longer support those practices, no matter how efficient they try to be. The margins will be too thin. Those attorneys able to serve higher-quality, later-stage clients (those that make it to Series B, C, exit) where legal work will remain much more high-touch, high-margin will dominate the market and cross-subsidize their work for premium early-stage clients. In short, Startup Law will move closer to a freemium model, where standard work is significantly cheaper, and being able to attract “premium” clients is essential for profitability.
The point of this post is not to comment on the accuracy of my predictions. One year is too short a time-frame to judge (we’ll see in 3-4 more years), though I will say that in Austin’s legal market I’ve seen a definite trend of solo and almost-solo lawyers attempting to expand their practices into multi-specialty firms, suggesting their desire (or need) to move up-market. Nationwide, I’ve also encountered a few small firms with much higher-caliber partners/associates, broad networks of specialists, and low-overhead platforms to compete head-on with BigLaw: this is where things will get very interesting.
Deflation 2.0 – Clerky
Instead, I’d like to talk about how the above developments have manifested themselves in the form of a Y-Combinator startup called Clerky. Details:
- Founders are UPenn and Harvard (represent!) JDs of Orrick pedigree, and the head partner of Orrick’s Emerging Companies Group is an advisor; lest you question the quality of the drafting.
- Appears to have handled formations for several Y-Combinator classes (note: classes – hundreds of companies) over the past several years; lest you think they haven’t been vetted and won’t get traction.
- For formations, founders fill out online questionnaires very similar to those used by startup-focused law firms, and documents are automatically populated with the appropriate names, numbers, vesting schedules, etc.
- There is a “reviewer” option where the founders can designate a person (an attorney) to review the final documents pre-execution to give a thumbs-up.
- Execution is handled electronically on the platform.
- Delaware filings and registered agent registrations are handled by Clerky.
- Final executed documents are stored online.
- Currently Available: Simple Incorporation (no equity, IP docs, etc.) – $99. Full formation (equity docs with vesting, IP assignment, bylaws, etc. – option plans and indemnification agreements coming soon) – $398.
- Coming Soon (In Private Beta): Employee Offer Letters, Consulting Agreements, Advisor Agreements, NDAs, Convertible Notes., LLC to C-Corp Conversion
So what exactly has Clerky done? Once they get option plans and indemnification agreements up and running, they will have taken what would cost $5K-10K in legal fees at an inefficient law firm (or $2.5K-$5K at a more efficient one) and reduced it to $398 by going one step past building tools for lawyers to developing a platform that effectively replaces them – or at least ~95% of the work they do for early-stage clients. LegalZoom prices, but for premium, startup-focused documents.
What about free options?
Major law firms have attempted to address the large portion of the founder population for which even $2.5K-$5K is too high a formation price tag by offering documents online for free. I even wrote this post offering my own checklist for forming your own startup and issuing equity, lawyer-free, via publicly available documents. But $398 is close enough to free that founders in this same category will be willing to pay for peace-of-mind, knowing that their docs are filled-out and filed properly, and that a reputable service is helping them maintain them. Plus it’ll save them hours of having to read the forms themselves.
Curmudgeon Criticism 1: Founders will want more customization than Clerky Offers
Yes, there will always be a segment of the founder population that wants high-touch, more flexible lawyering from the very beginning and will pay for it. But the reality is that for the large portion of the pre-funding founder population that just wants to “get the job done” and focus on their product, Clerky, with its 80-90% discount on even the most efficient startup lawyers, will be a viable option. I don’t see Clerky taking up 90% of all startup formations, but it absolutely will be chosen by the most cash-strapped portion of the founder population for which a barebones formation makes sense. Instead of relying on bottom-of-the-barrel lawyers peddling cheap prices, those founders will get a solid legal foundation.
Curmudgeon Criticism 2: Good lawyers will never accept a third-party service’s drafting language for their own clients.
After an inevitable phase of whining, kicking, and screaming, smart lawyers will accept whatever good clients and the market dictate, or they’ll just leave the space. As stated above, there will always be clients who are willing to pay a premium for ensuring that all of their lawyering is 100% airtight, but those clients will be fewer and farther between. And you can certainly expect a chorus of lawyers poking through the Clerky docs with a laundry list of ways their own documents are better. But like many disruptive innovations, it’s about the ratio of quality to cost, not absolute quality. At $398 for documents based on those used by one of the country’s leading tech firms and delivered by a YC company run by Ivy-League JDs, the value for founders is unquestionable. Quality, both in terms of legal drafting and user experience, will also improve over time.
Clerky will allow founders to engage quality, scalable lawyers earlier on.
Clerky’s “reviewer” option and its clear intent to incorporate lawyers in their processes shows that the goal here is not to completely replace lawyers, which would clearly be silly and reckless. The nuances of individual circumstances, the need for sound professional judgment that can’t be reduced to an algorithm, and the general realities of running a company will always require good, human legal counsel.
What a service like Clerky does is allow founders with very low legal budgets to stop having to settle for low-quality, mismatched lawyers who end up costing a whole lot more money (in mistakes) than founders expect. As I wrote in a previous post, a lot of founders know they need a lawyer, but can’t afford a good one, so they take the “staging” approach of going cheap up-front with plans to “upgrade” later. The consequences of this approach can be very expensive, and often disastrous. Founders need lawyers that can serve them at all stages of development, not just when they’re tiny and the stakes seem low.
With Clerky, the “cost” of hiring a good lawyer at the very early stages of a startup can be the time it takes to quickly review some Clerky docs and answer any questions a founder might have about non-standard matters. For quality startup lawyers who stop pretending that all document drafting, no matter how routine, needs to occur in private silos, this is liberating. They can focus their practices on more complex matters that are far more profitable and interesting from a professional standpoint, while still maintaining relationships with early-stage clients who might one day require their skills. It also means the need for deferring fees will be dramatically reduced.
A missing piece: what do the documents say?
One issue that has gone under-addressed in the startup legal landscape is how to make all these automated legal documents understandable to founders. While no founder should care to understand all the nuances of their option plan, stock purchase agreements, etc., they should at last be able to grasp at a high-level the concepts that they contain. And sitting down with a lawyer for every explanation is and always will be too expensive for most founders.
Offering lists of books and links to founders is very helpful. A “customer support” model of cheaper professionals without JDs who can easily answer common founder questions will also likely emerge.
One startup here in Austin is taking an interesting approach: crowdsourced annotations of contracts (Lawful.ly). They call themselves the “Rapgenius for Law.” Imagine having all of the legal forms that your startup uses available online with annotations, so you can click around the document and get plain-english explanations of what a particular provision means. That’s what they are working on, and hopefully it (or something similar) will fill a gaping hole in the early-stage startup law landscape.
For lawyers who’ve built their practices on charging clients thousands of dollars for basically filling in forms and doing some cutting-and-pasting, the future looks increasingly grim. For those of us who love working with entrepreneurs and tech companies, but find cookie-cutter legal work utterly boring and a waste of our intellect, life is getting a whole lot better.