Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law

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

Related reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who chooses the “standard”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lies about fixed legal fees.

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

Except it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standardization and Flexibility need to be balanced.

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

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

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

When a Startup Lawyer can’t scale.

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

Background reading:

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

Law firm infrastructure includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Board works for the Common Stock

TL;DR: Under Delaware law, the Board’s primary fiduciary duties are to the common stock; not the preferred. That includes Board members who are themselves investors. Keeping that in mind when interests between investors and common stockholders diverge is important for preventing lawsuits.

Background Reading:

Note: For purpose of this post, we’re going to assume Delaware corporate law, because the vast majority of startups are Delaware corporations. States like California, Texas, Colorado, etc. have different laws, although they are not that far off from Delaware (usually).

There are situations in which the “right” thing to do is a black and white, easy to identify issue. But in many other situations, contextual nuances, ambiguity, and human loyalties/incentives make finding an answer more opaque. In those situations, I’ve found that two questions can help provide clarity:

  • Whom do you work for?
  • (and related) Whom do you not work for?

Corporate governance is the broad term for how corporations should be “governed” in the best interests of their constituents. And under Delaware corporate law, it’s a well-known fact that a Board of Directors, which manages the Company at the highest levels, works for the stockholders. The job of a Board of Directors is to maximize value for the stockholder base. 

But which stockholders? Again, we have some ambiguity. Some of the stockholders are sophisticated, repeat player investors holding preferred stock, and the ability to fund (and negotiate) future financings. Other stockholders are first-time entrepreneurs, or employees, with far more of their net worth already sunk in the specific company, in the form of common stock.

Common v. Preferred

As I wrote in Common Stock v. Preferred Stock, anyone who speaks of Common Stockholders (founders, employees) and Preferred Stockholders (investors) as being fully aligned economically either has no idea what they’re talking about, or is deliberately obfuscating the facts, and the relevant case law on the subject. Investors are typically diversified, experienced, advised independently by personal counsel, and have contractual rights that allow them, in certain exit scenarios, to take 100% of exit proceeds. Common Stockholders are typically significantly less diversified, less experienced, reliant on company counsel for guidance, and lacking in contractual preferences on their equity.

In one sense, Common and Preferred stockholders are aligned in desiring for the Company to get as large of an exit as possible. But after that point is made, it has to be acknowledged that between them (distributionally), they conflict in terms of how much risk they are comfortable taking on to achieve that exit, what percentage of exit they will take, who else might join the cap table to share in that exit, when to go for an exit, and any number of other scenarios.

So again returning back to the point made earlier: a Board of Directors works for the stockholders. But there are conflicts between the stockholders. So whom does the Board work for?

Delaware courts give a clear answer: the Common Stock. For those interested, the most commonly cited case on the issue is called In re Trades Shareholder Litigation, although there’s a huge amount of other material available online on the subject.

Yes, all Board members work for the Common Stock; even the directors who are themselves investors and preferred stockholders. That means that, when deliberating on issues for the Company as Board members, directors are supposed to put aside their personal interests, and all the ways in which they might benefit themselves over other stockholders, and do what’s best for the common stock, as a class. And if they don’t, they are open to being sued by common stockholders.

The Job of Company Counsel

Delaware’s answer to whom the Board works for also illuminates what the job of company counsel is: to help the Board do what’s best for the common stock. That includes paying attention to circumstances in which investor directors may be, shall we say, distracted by personal interests in ways that aren’t beneficial to the overall stockholder base.

The job of independent company counsel is, in part, to help a Board of Directors remain mindful of their fiduciary duties to the company’s stockholders, particularly the common stockholders, and to avoid placing itself in situations where they’re exposed to fiduciary duty violation claims.

Because company counsel plays such a key role in corporate governance and keeping self-dealing in check, very aggressive VCs will maneuver to have the company engage lawyers who are “captive” to the interests of the lead investors. I’ve written about this extensively, including in How to avoid “Captive” Company Counsel.

If the job of the Board is to do what’s best for the common stock, and to avoid favoring the preferred, then clearly the last thing a well-governed Board would do is force the company to hire lawyers who have long histories working for the Company’s lead preferred holders. In 90% of Boards I work with, this is seen as an obvious, plain as daylight fact; the Company should hire independent lawyers. Outside of the startup/VC world, it would be seen the same way by 100% of Boards.

But there’s still that 10% of funds (bad actors) who use any number of excuses for putting captive lawyers in the counsel seat. And yes, I have seen lawsuits, both against investors and against lawyers, result from parties playing those kinds of games. Piss off the wrong stockholder, and leave enough evidence, and you won’t like the outcome. 

When Boards don’t do their job

It’s one thing to say that the Board’s job is to represent the best interests of the common stockholders, and not take actions to enrich the investor base at their expense, but ensuring that it actually gets done is a whole other issue. Again, there are many funds out there who care deeply about their reputation, and try hard to fulfill their fiduciary duties. But every serious corporate lawyer knows of the tactics that bad actors will use to push through their agendas, often with thinly veiled arguments about why they are best for the company. Some examples:

  1. Telling management that they should not be talking to outside investors (who might offer competing terms, or more competitive valuations), because it is “distracting” and they should “focus on the business.” Or that they simply “aren’t ready” for fundraising yet, despite the fact that the company will run out of cash without getting talks going.
  2. Making up reasons why their preferred lawyers / firm will offer favorable economics (lower cost) to the Company if they are engaged, and using cost savings as a reason why it’s best for the company.
  3. Running executive recruitment processes without the involvement of founders/existing management who are Board members, citing that they prefer not to distract them. The end result being that their loyalists end up getting hired, and not other candidates.
  4. Insisting that their preferred “independent” director choice be elected, despite clear loyalty issues, and holding up other key decisions until they are put in place.
  5. Using made-up data to impose onerous budget constraints on the Company, unless management “gives” on other issues they want.

Unfortunately, once you’ve allowed an asshole onto your Board, it takes constant vigilance and offense/defense to counter the many tactics they might use to push the Company in directions that increase their power and ownership, without actually benefiting the company overall.  Sometimes you have no choice but to go down that path.

But without a doubt, the best thing a team can do to ensure their Board stays aligned with its fiduciary duties is to avoid bad actors altogether, and that takes diligence before any checks are written. All money is green, but some of it is rotten.

As I wrote in Local v. Out of State VCs and Ask the Users, as startup ecosystems become more transparent and open, relying less on one or two dominant funds, the value of diligencing the reputations of investors goes up significantly.  VCs rely heavily on their reputations for deal flow, and there are many good players in startup ecosystems who will use reputational information to either push more deal flow toward VCs who play by the rules, or penalize bad actors. 

I have seen companies go deep into talks with Fund A, and then choose to go with Fund B primarily based on very negative feedback they received, off the record, from entrepreneurs and other market players who know how Fund A worked. Reputation is powerful. Use it.

Key takeaways to wrap this up:

  • The job of a Board of Directors is to do what’s best for the common stockholders of the Company, and not enrich or empower themselves at the common’s expense.
  • Even with that fact, bad actors will use shady tactics and excuses to push companies to do things that favor the VCs over the remainder of the stockholder base.
  • Your best defenses are (i) do diligence to find out who the bad actors are, and avoid their money if you can, and (ii) hire independent advisors who will hold their ground against bad actors during Board meetings.

Negotiation and Inexperience

TL;DR: Having access to trusted advisors, and the time to consult with them, is essential for anyone negotiating terms with which they have very little experience. Don’t accept someone’s argument that you must negotiate important issues live. It’s simply untrue, and a tactic for gaining unfair leverage.

Background Reading:

A recurring theme of SHL posts is that entrepreneurs, particularly first-time entrepreneurs, need to be extremely mindful of the imbalance of experience between themselves and the many sophisticated, repeat players they’re going to be negotiating with as they build their companies. It’s obviously common for entrepreneurial personalities to be more comfortable (than most) with risk, and to go head-first into negotiations and activities without proper backup. But for really big, irreversible decisions, it will backfire, and others will happily use it against you.

One of the most overused phrases for getting naive negotiators to give in on issues they should push back on is “this is standard.” When you have no historical or market perspective – what’s normal, what’s fair, what are the risks, how will this play out in 5 years? – you can be easily manipulated into all kinds of bad outcomes. I’ve been at more than my fair share of board meetings or negotiations where someone at the table makes a completely biased, nonsensical claim that something is “standard,” at which point I’ve had to step in to set things straight, and gladly offer up data or a quick market survey.

There are two main things that I tell all companies to focus on in this regard:

  1. Have a group of experienced, trusted advisors that you can quickly communicate with on serious issues.
  2. Do not let yourself be bullied into a setting where your inexperience puts you at a substantial disadvantage.

Trusted Advisors

When I speak of trusted advisors, I’m not referring necessarily just to your Company’s “advisory board,” which serves a broader purpose of helping you on long-term strategic, business, and technological issues. I’m referring to people you can call or e-mail for specific, tactical guidance on more pressing matters; your “inner circle.” Seasoned entrepreneurs, mentors from accelerators, lawyers (who are independent from your lead VCs), and trustworthy angel investors often make up this group for most CEOs I work with. The most important thing is that they (i) have visibility into the broader market, to help you actually understand what is acceptable, and (ii) will be direct and honest with you when you most need them to.

Imbalanced Negotiation Settings

While it is far less common in the tech world than in other areas, you occasionally still encounter people (particularly VCs) who insist that the only appropriate way to “really” negotiate is live, and in person. And let me tell you: this is bullshit.

Of course, live discussion is important for communication and relationship-building; it has its place. But more often than not, attempts to force entrepreneurs and company executives to negotiate key issues live, or under a very tight deadline, is a tactic to gain unfair leverage from their inexperience. Of course the guy who’s done this type of deal 30 times wants you to agree to terms live, face to face, away from your set of advisors. It has zero to do with business norms. Plenty of high-stakes deals are negotiated asynchronously. 

How you push back and (respectfully) assert yourself in negotiations with other business parties will set the tone for your long-term relationship. If you allow them to force you into circumstances that favor them, they will do it indefinitely. There is nothing wrong with responding, diplomatically, that while you of course would love to grab beers and meet up in person for more casual matters, for real business, you expect time to consult with advisors.

If you’re working with people whom you should want to build long-term relationships with, they will respect your request.  In fact, I’ve known some great VCs and other business people who are very upfront about the experience imbalance with new entrepreneurs, and insist that companies work closely with key advisors.  Those are people playing a long game, and who know that their reputation in the market matters more than short-term opportunism.

If the person you’re negotiating with rejects your request, and dictates to you the medium of negotiation, then at a minimum you’ve gained some key information on what the relationship is going to really look like if you choose to move forward.

Commercial / Tech Transactions Lawyers

TL;DR: Apart from early-stage specialized corporate lawyers (startup lawyers), there’s a second kind of lawyer that almost every early startup needs: a commercial/tech transactions lawyer.

Background Reading:

Imagine you run into a doctor who says he can (i) perform heart surgeries, (ii) treat cancer, (iii) treat your asthma, and (iv) provide pregnancy care, on his own, and all at a lower than market cost. Is your first reaction “wow, this guy is an incredibly affordable genius!” ? A cardiologist, oncologist, pulmonologist, and OB/GYN all in one!

Probably not.

One of the first points I make to young tech entrepreneurs about how to source legal counsel is that the statement “I need a lawyer” is almost completely useless without specifying what kind (specialty) of lawyer. The complexity of the legal issues that even young emerging companies deal with is simply too high to entrust all of them to a single “generalist” claiming to be a jack of all trades. This is not a coffee shop, or a bakery. The stakes, and potential liabilities, are much higher.

OK, you might say. I’m a startup, so I need a startup lawyer. Well, that’s an improvement, but what exactly is a “startup lawyer”?

In my experience, the correct definition of a “startup lawyer” is a corporate lawyer with a strong specialization in early-stage emerging companies and venture capital/angel financings. Very different from an M&A Lawyer, or a corporate lawyer who handles middle market or public company work. Startup lawyers typically serve as GC (General Counsel) for early-stage startups, which requires them to have a workable understanding of tax law, securities law, commercial issues, IP, and labor/employment legal issues.  They’re not experts in those areas (corporate law is their specialty), but they’ve seen those issues enough to cover the basics, while also knowing when to rope in deeper expertise. Your corporate/startup lawyer should serve as the quarterback of your general legal team.

For most startups we see, probably 50-75% of Pre-Series A legal needs are covered by these startup-specialized corporate lawyers: formation, financing, hiring and firing, equity compensation, etc. Small amounts of patent or trademark work may be needed by appropriate specialists, but that’s a minority of cases pre-Series A.  But there’s a second kind of lawyer – who isn’t a “startup lawyer” – that virtually all of our early clients end up needing, and that all founders need to be aware of in sourcing their own counsel: commercial, or sometimes called “tech transactions” lawyers.

Startup/corporate lawyers typically handle the more ‘internal’ issues of a company and its stakeholders: relating to the company’s founders, its employees/service providers, and stockholders.  Commercial or Tech Transactions (let’s use C/T) lawyers, in contrast, typically manage legal issues and contracts relating to a company’s customers/users and potential commercial partners. A good 25-50% of pre-Series A legal needs will often get handled by a C/T lawyer. Examples of C/T Lawyer work:

  • License Agreements (Inbound and Outbound)
  • OEM, Reseller / Distribution Agreements
  • Terms of Service and Privacy Policies (which may also require Data/Privacy Lawyers, but usually not)
  • EULAs, API / SDK terms
  • Technology Transfer Agreements
  • Manufacturing / Supply Agreements

The nature of these kinds of agreements is very different from the kind of work a classic “startup lawyer” does, and while most solid corporate lawyers probably could wing a simple version of a tech transactions document, I am deeply skeptical of a lawyer who claims to be able to handle both all of a company’s corporate needs and their commercial/tech transactions needs for a serious amount of time. In the very early days it *may* work, but even with a small level of scale it’ll start to look a lot like the “genius” doctor mentioned above. The most dangerous (and, in the long run, expensive) type of lawyer is the one who doesn’t admit what he/she doesn’t know, but incentives to maximize personal revenue often lead lawyers to exaggerate their abilities.

So, in short: if you’re building a tech startup, you don’t just need “a lawyer.” You need specialists. And a true startup lawyer, even a very good one, is very rarely enough. Ensure you have access to a solid commercial/tech transactions lawyer (reputable startup lawyers work with them). If you don’t, you’ll eventually regret it.