Lies About Startup Legal Fees

It usually takes experience in the market for business people to truly understand the realities of hiring and working with lawyers. I can’t tell you how many times I run into first-time founders who’ve been fed absolute nonsense from ‘advisors’ ‘mentors’ or similarly named people about their ‘secrets’ for managing legal spend. The truth is that unless you’ve taken a company from seed to Series A, Series B, Series C, to an exit in which a serious party on the other side actually diligenced the legal history your ‘secrets’ put together, your theories about lawyers are hot air.

Failed companies never pay the price for poorly managed legal; unless the failure was the result of the legal problems, which does happen. Successful companies, however, pay deeply for legal mistakes. It’s  just a question of timing. There are definitely steps you can take to prevent legal spend from getting out of control, but it requires separating reality from delusion. The below is my attempt at doing that.

1. Software automation (or free templates) will not replace your lawyers, or dramatically cut legal spend.

See: Luddites v. Tech Utopians. New market entrants in technology have a tendency to come out with guns blazing, promising their ability to cut out enormous amounts of waste as reason to adopt them. Sometimes they’re telling the truth. Other times it’s well-calculated hyperbole.

Virtually every serious automation tool that has emerged with “cut huge amounts of legal spend” as its primary selling point has evolved into a tool for lawyers. Why? Because, contrary to some popular opinion (and marketing talk), good lawyers really aren’t charging hundreds of dollars an hour to just fill in numbers or check off boxes. Good tools are very helpful for making lawyers/firms more efficient, and you want lawyers who use those tools, but a piece of software isn’t going to replace your lawyers any more than a piece of software will replace your software developers.

Yes, there is form-filling and box-checking ripe for automation, but it’s not nearly as large of a percentage of legal spend as some let on.

2. Handling it yourself won’t save you legal fees.

I could write an entire book listing all the “hold my beer” moments I’ve encountered with someone on a management team thinking that they were wisely saving legal fees by taking an issue into their own hands, and it then predictably blowing up in their faces.  Part of it boils down to simple sloppiness. Other times it’s a clear case of someone not knowing what they don’t know.

There’s a related dynamic here to the first point about technology companies overstating their ability to cut legal spend. Anyone selling anything (a product, a service, themselves) has to justify it somehow, and “those damn lawyers” are a great bullseye. A COO / CFO wants to justify his salary, and an easy way to do that is by claiming to ‘save’ you legal fees via DIY legal work. You’re not saving anything. You’re magnifying your fees, but deferring them temporarily.

3. Quickly hiring an “in house” lawyer won’t save you a dime.

CEO: “We’re thinking about hiring an in-house lawyer to save some legal fees.”
Me: “Great. What’s his/her starting salary?”
CEO: “$95K”
Me: “Going to be complete shit, and will cost you 10x more long-term.”
CEO: “What? That’s more than some of our execs make.”
Me: “Senior lawyers worth having won’t even talk to us if we’re recruiting with less than $200K. And our lawyers have fantastic work-life balance. You’re recruiting in the same legal talent market I’m in. You really think you found some magic button that cuts the market rate in half?”

Look, I get it. Good lawyers are expensive. Really good lawyers are even more expensive. Fact: Talent is expensive. Everywhere. Make it incur three years of opportunity costs (law school) and a small mortgage (about $200-225k for law school, all in) before it can hit the market, and it gets a whole lot more expensive. 

Last time I checked a solid software developer will cost you six figures in salary; ignoring equity. And ‘coding’ mistakes are 10x more fixable, and potentially less costly, than legal mistakes. It is absolutely the case that a small portion of the tech community arrogantly believes that engineering talent is the only talent really worth paying for. Good luck with that.

I’m not trying to defend what lawyers make here (I don’t need to), but what I am saying is hiring lawyers has the exact same talent market dynamics of hiring any other kind of professional.  So you say you’ve found a lawyer willing to work for a lot less. Congratulations, you caught lightning in a bottle; found a rupture in the space-time continuum.

Or you just found a lawyer completely lacking in the experience/skillset needed to actually replace the work outside counsel (including a set of specialists) is doing for you. There is definitely a time to hire a general counsel, but for it to actually make sense mathematically and not result in extremely expensive mistakes, it’s usually much later in the company’s history than you think. Past “startup” territory.

4. A few real truths on startup legal spend.

A. Compensation and specialization drive talent quality. Quality prevents errors, and therefore controls fees long-term.

Fundamentally, two things drive lawyer recruitment (I know, because I recruit for MEMN): compensation and quality of life. Very large firms generally have terrible quality of life for their lawyers, for a number of reasons too complex to discuss here. But that’s why large firms have to pay their lawyers the most.

In-house positions and boutique firms are recruiting pipelines for what I call “BigLaw refugees”; talented lawyers looking to still get paid well, but take a moderate pay cut (sometimes) in exchange for the ability to keep their marriages in tact, and their kids out of therapy. But as discussed above, to get the full-time attention of those lawyers, even with great work-life balance, you still have to pony up in amounts virtually no true startup can afford. That’s why outside counsel (‘fractional’ lawyering) is valuable.

And working with lawyers who specialize in emerging tech/VC work will ensure you’re paying for talent experienced in the kind of legal work you actually need. See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers.

B. Law firm “overhead” increases legal spend above base lawyer compensation, but enables scalability and quality. 

On top of the money paying a particular lawyer’s salary, you have the ‘institutional overhead’ of the firm that employs the lawyer. For a deeper discussion of law firm overhead, see: Startups Scale. Solo Lawyers Don’t. 

Companies who think only large firms with the highest rates have the best lawyers (compensation) are ignoring the interplay of overhead and compensation. If you cut overhead intelligently, you can still pay lawyers very well, but at lower rates to clients. The issue is how much overhead to cut out.

Institutional overhead, properly structured and right-sized, is not wasted money any more than the ‘overhead’ (on top of salaries) of any company is wasteful. In law, it enables recruitment, technology, training, staff, and other infrastructure that turns a set of lawyers into an integrated legal services provider, with bandwidth that can be optimized to keep work moving.

Think about what type of company you want to build long-term, or at least expect to be for the next 5 years, and ensure you engage a firm with the right institutional infrastructure (overhead) to serve that company. Very very large firms are designed for unicorns, and require the most ‘infrastructure,’ and therefore overhead.  In fact, the majority of what you pay large firms is paying for infrastructure. Are you planning to be a unicorn?

We are quite honest in saying that, as a high-end boutique firm, our target client is looking to (realistically) exit at under $250MM. We don’t work for unicorns; nor do we try to.  But we also don’t work for small businesses hoping to sell for a few million.

We pay our lawyers compensation that is highly competitive with large firms, which (again, a talent market) ensures quality. Our lawyers also bill about 25% fewer hours per year than BigLaw lawyers, which improves their quality of life (helps recruiting/retention).  But because we have dramatically lower institutional overhead, our rates are lower; although nowhere near the lowest.

In my experience, the size of your Series A round is usually a pretty good indication of the type of company (exit size) you’re trying to build; companies truly going for unicorn status raise much larger rounds. Pre-Series A, the majority of serious tech companies require some accommodation to manage their legal budget; no matter how efficient their lawyers are.

If Post-Series A, your company’s legal bills still seem completely unmanageable, that’s often a good indication that the law firm you hired is too big for what you’re building (non-unicorn-track using a high-infrastructure unicorn law firm); assuming your expectations on what the bill should be simply aren’t unhinged. Remember, small firms can have very high quality lawyers, because they aren’t paying them less. They just have a leaner infrastructure designed for non-billion-dollar clients.

C. Flexible pricing / payment from a quality firm is 1,000 times better than “going cheap.” But be realistic about the budget. 

If you get anything from this post, it is this: good, scalable legal counsel costs real money, like any talent. There is no magical software, recruiting strategy, or template on google that will get around that. Anyone who thinks they are cheating this rule, and have somehow found bargain-basement counsel that works, is just not yet hearing the ticking of the time bomb they’ve turned on in their company.

The absolute best strategy for engaging serious legal counsel, but not going bankrupt on legal fees is to ensure that:

  • you’re working with lawyers who have the right specialization for what you need;
  • at the right quality level, and with right-sized overhead for the scalability you need; and
  • who will flexibly work with you on budget/payment at the very early stages.

Law firms who specialize in emerging tech work are not new to the challenges of very early-stage startups trying to manage a legal budget; at all. It is deeply engrained to each lawyer’s expectations. And there are a lot of levers that those firms can and will pull for clients they want to work with: fixed fees, deferred fees, equity arrangements, etc.

The key part is “clients they want to work with.” They are selective, because they have to be.  Serious law firms are not in the game to work on mickey mouse fixed-fee or discounted projects to eternity; nor can they afford to be. They do that to scale down for valuable prospects with the right potential lifetime value (LTV) as clients, but who need help when the budget is slim. That’s why any early-stage, limited budget company that approaches a serious law firm should be ready to “pitch” their company to the firm.

For high potential companies, great tech/VC lawyers will be flexible on budget and payment as long as the founders are reasonable in their expectations. And the best way to be reasonable is to follow the points in this post. Accept that you need good legal talent, badly. Accept that it costs real money, and that you likely can’t afford the full cost up-front, and that’s normal.  If you’re as good as you hope you are, you will find a way to navigate that reality.

Do my startup’s lawyers need to be local?

TL;DR: No. Most top startup lawyers have clients in many different cities, and lawyers specializing in emerging tech/startup work usually exist only in denser tech ecosystems. Familiarity with your ecosystem, and the expectations of its participants, matters more than being physically local.

Background Reading:

If you live in a small town/city and need specialized (not general practice) medical care, you most likely need to look to a larger city to find that specialist. Any kind of service provider needs some minimal user base to build a viable practice. Larger cities have a higher concentration of patients, and therefore a higher number of patients needing a particular specialty, which is what enables the development of specialist doctors.

This is why cardiologists generally don’t live in farm towns, at least not during their working-week. They live in larger cities. And neonatal cardiologists (even more narrowly specialized) generally only live in the very largest cities.

For localized work, specialization requires density.

It’s also why true startup lawyers – corporate lawyers with a focused practice in emerging tech and venture-backed companies – generally exist only in cities with dense startup ecosystems. Even with modern technology that enables casting a wider net for your market reach, most professionals rely significantly on a local client base. If that local base doesn’t exist, they move to where one does, or they change their practice to mirror the local market. Houston has among the world’s top energy lawyers, but slim pickings for technology/vc lawyers. Boston has among the world’s top healthcare lawyers, but slim pickings for entertainment lawyers (many of which are in Los Angeles). No surprises there.

So to the extent work has a heavily local component (like healthcare, and to a lesser extent law), if you need a particular kind of specialized service, you are smart to look for it in places that have a real density of users for that service. Otherwise you will end up with sub-par local providers, which can be fine if the stakes are low, but disastrous when they aren’t.

Startup Law really isn’t that localized.

It may come as a surprise to people that, for a significant portion of my client base, I have never met the principals in person; and likely never will. Videoconferencing and teleconferencing serve just fine (in addition to other tech tools). That is actually the case for a lot of lawyers with specialized practices. Most serious startup/VC lawyers that I know have clients in multiple cities. In my case, about half of my clients are in Austin (reflecting the need for a dense local base to usually build a specialized practice), and the other half are not (confirming that being local isn’t required at all).

Unlike a cardiologist, I don’t need to physically examine anyone to do my job, which makes geography largely irrelevant. Because most startups generally incorporate in Delaware for reasons discussed throughout the startup blogosphere, local state law only plays a small role in most of the legal issues that startups deal with (usually local employment law); and for those issues, most startup lawyers collaborate with local employment lawyers. The corporate issues generally require very little understanding of local state law. I have quite a few clients with lawyers in half a dozen different cities, none of which are the city where the company is headquartered. And it works just fine.

More important than truly local lawyers is lawyers who are familiar with working in ecosystems that look like your own. The norms of Silicon Valley financing and governance are very different from those of Denver and Atlanta, as an example; both what some would call “2nd tier” ecosystems.  But a Denver lawyer would be quite comfortable with Austin norms, and visa versa.

Local v. foreign specialized lawyers is about tradeoffs.

Silicon valley startups generally use silicon valley startup lawyers. Austin startups generally use Austin startup lawyers. And in both cases, that works very well, because there isn’t a cost to ‘going local.’ Being able to meet up once in a while in person with your service providers is obviously nice from a relationship standpoint. There is some benefit also to your investors being familiar with company counsel, although that issue is usually exaggerated for reasons that I’ll discuss more below.

So if you can get the nice benefits of having someone local, without many costs, going local is usually a good idea as long as you can find someone local who isn’t captive to local investor interests. And sometimes you can’t. See: “How to avoid ‘captive’ company counsel.” There is no set of advisors for whom a founder/management team should care more about their independence than company counsel.

For startups with less dense ecosystems than Silicon Valley or Austin, however, the cost to going local can be much higher. The reason VC or Angel-backed startups in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and similar cities often hire startup lawyers who aren’t local is that they (correctly) recognize that their local ecosystems (generally) lack the density to support truly specialized, scalable startup/vc law practices. Each of those cities has fantastic, very smart corporate lawyers who likely have some tech clients, but startup/vc law as a specialization is more difficult to find; although there are exceptions.

My non-Austin clients have concluded that it’s much better, and more efficient, to collaborate with lawyers in another city who’ve seen the exact issues they’re dealing with dozens of times, and have the resources to address them quickly, relative to someone who may be easier to grab beers with, but hasn’t. CEOs need to exercise their own judgment for their own circumstances.

Be careful with localism, and localist incentives.

“Localism” is a term I’ve started using to refer to the underlying, subtle incentives among ecosystem players that push them to promote local people onto a set of founders, sometimes at a very high cost to the company; discussed in the links at the beginning of this post. Ask any experienced founder, and they’ll tell you about so-called “advisors” or “mentors” in their local ecosystem who, while fun to hang around as cheerleaders, unfortunately don’t actually deliver much real advice or mentorship. There are some great advisors/mentors out there, but also a lot of duds.

There are, broadly speaking, 2 ways (not mutually exclusive) in which service providers (venture capitalists, lawyers, accelerators, accountants, advisors, etc.) build their portfolios: (A) being actually good (objectively) at their service, and (B) building relationships and generating referrals from those relationships. Most A-level people rely on both (because the first leads to the second).  But there are a whole lot of people in every business community who are quite mediocre at the actual service they provide, but are exceptional at marketing themselves and building referrals.

If my social capital is the primary way that I get business, then I’m heavily incentivized to refer to people within my personal, local social circle, even if I know that objectively, someone better may be in another city. That “someone better in the other city” has his own social circles she/he belongs to that aren’t as inter-connected (or dependent) on my own. Sending business to them makes it less likely that it’ll come back to me, unless there’s some objective reason for the referral.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about all of this. It is how a lot of good people build their practices and reputations in the business world, and it’s just fine. But it’s important for every team to to be aware of these dynamics in their raw form, and correct for them as needed. And believe me I get the “farmers market” “go local” “support the LOCAL ecosystem” aspects of promoting local people as well, even if I believe the more self-interested dynamics underly a lot of that; at least as it relates to service providers. 

There’s something noble in that, but not when it comes at the expense of founders – who are putting their entire livelihoods on the line – getting shit service. As I’ve written before, nothing builds an ecosystem more than great companies, and great companies aren’t built with mediocre people. 

Watch out for ‘captive’ local counsel.

Circling back quickly to the issue of captive company counsel is a good place to close this out. For many people in startup ecosystems, localism is driven either by self-interested referral circles, or ecosystem cheerleading.  But for the most influential players in a particular ecosystem, it can also be driven by control. Thankfully the transparency of the web is weakening this dynamic, but institutional investors with heavy local influence often like to see local VC lawyers in the company counsel seat because they’ve strategically built leverage over those lawyers by (i) being their clients, and/or (ii) pushing portfolio companies to use them as company counsel. In other words, they’re company counsel, but… not really. 

Obviously you’ll never hear anything like this stated flat out in a board meeting. What you’ll more often hear is discussion about credentials, or familiarity, or experience, etc. etc. “I’m not sure those lawyers have the right experience” or “We’re more comfortable with these guys.” As I’ve written before, sometimes those concerns have merit. Take them seriously, and if you need to upgrade, go through the process yourself to find independent counsel. But also understand how these comments are usually veiled attempts at pushing companies to engage lawyers who are captive to the investors’ interests, and unable to fully represent the company.  If your lead investors seem peculiarly interested in your using a particular set of lawyers, that’s often a good indication of whom you should avoid.

Yes, there’s some reduction of “friction” when company counsel is familiar with the norms/expectations of investors across the table. But its value shouldn’t be overstated. Sometimes what investors call “friction” is just your lawyers doing their damn job. In this regard, we have seen companies from smaller ecosystems choose to engage foreign company counsel not because local VC specialists weren’t available, but because the founder team viewed them all as captive. Sometimes (but not always) they are right. 

There’s no right answer for all companies on this issue. Specialization is important. Local can be helpful at times, but also costly in specific circumstances. But you’ll arrive at a much better decision by weighing all the variables, instead of just assuming that “going local” is a requirement. It most certainly is not.

Startups Scale. Solo Lawyers Don’t.

TL;DR: Freelancer marketplaces push solo lawyers as a way to keep legal costs down for startups.  But what they’re marketing is very different from what they actually deliver. Solo lawyers can’t scale, and lack specialization. For high-growth startups, that is a big problem.

Background Reading:

In the landscape of options for getting legal covered for a tech company, there are generally speaking three types of providers, in order of largest to smallest: (i) BigLaw, (ii) Boutique firms, and (iii) Solo lawyers.  I’ve written quite a bit about the comparison between (i) and (ii), but this post is mostly about (iii).

Overhead

“Overhead” is a term often used to refer to everything that a lawyer’s rate has built into it that doesn’t directly go into compensation. Very large firms (BigLaw) have significant amounts of “overhead”; only about 20-25% of the $575/hr you pay for a top-tier BigLaw senior non-partner actually goes into her pocket.

But it’s far too simplistic to assume that all those resources are simply being burned for no reason. Large, fast-moving, complex transactions require collaboration among lots of different kinds of legal professionals, including different kinds of specialties of lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, legal technology providers, etc. For the very top end of the market, good arguments can be made that the “overhead” of large, international firms is actually quite necessary. The idea that a bunch of freelancer lawyers/legal professionals could just team up to get a billion-dollar merger done efficiently and on-time is little short of delusional.

Boutique firms are the market’s response, enabled in part by new low-cost technology and infrastructure, to BigLaw’s overhead. Those deal lawyers who don’t cater to, and aren’t pursuing, the Ubers and Facebooks of the world, are acknowledging that while they do need institutional resources (overhead) to create strong teams that can close meaningful deals, those institutional resources don’t need to eat up more than half of revenue; certainly not with today’s technology. A $100MM acquisition, or even in many cases a $10MM financing, is sufficiently complex and fast-moving that, again, you are delusional if you think a bunch of freelancers working independently are going to get it done effectively; but a small integrated team of affiliated lawyers, or even a handful of boutique firms, can easily get it done outside of a 1,000 lawyer firm with offices on multiple continents.

Solo lawyers are on the opposite end of the overhead spectrum. They are the freelancers of the legal world. Their ‘overhead’ amounts to maybe a few SaaS subscriptions and a computer. MEMN’s specialist network, in fact, has a fair amount of solo lawyers in various legal specialties. Their rates are naturally lower than lawyers in large or even small firms, due in part to overhead. You might conclude – and there are definitely solo lawyer marketplaces out there trying to drive this conclusion – that every early-stage startup should obviously be using solo lawyers, because they’re “cheaper.” But this overlooks certain key facts about the nature of startups, and about legal services, that call for a reality check.

Legal bills don’t correlate completely with hourly rates.

It’s not that complicated to understand that a well-structured team of lawyers billing $425/hr can easily produce a lower legal bill than independent solo lawyers billing at $275 if they have the right institutional resources – technology, team, knowledge, process (“overhead”) – in place. They’re also often supported by junior professionals/non-lawyers with dramatically lower rates to cover routine items. At very early stage, a lot of the tasks that startups need actually require very little lawyer involvement at all if the right infrastructure (‘overhead’) is in place. If you assume solo means cheaper, you’re often wrong.

Specialization drives efficiency.

What is a “startup lawyer”? That will take too long to fully explain in this post, but I can tell you what it’s not: a litigator, a small business lawyer, a generalist who dabbles in a little estate planning, real estate, and a few seed financings on the side, or a generalist corporate lawyer. I’ve been shocked by how many of these solo lawyer websites market lawyers as “startup lawyers” when they clearly, from their own bio descriptions, are nothing of the sort. Similar to the first point above, a lawyer at $425/hr who has done a project 50 times will be dramatically more efficient at it than someone at $275 who has done it once.

This is not rocket science. Smart founders know that developers with higher salaries often get far more done than 10 developers at lower salaries. The talent market dynamics of lawyers are not that different from those of developers.

In a talent market, the cheap guy is usually cheap for a reason.

In an industry where results are driven by human, not just institutional, capital, you simply cannot hire whoever walks in the door and train them to produce A-level service; no matter how fantastic your resources are. As elitist as it may sound, most lawyers on the market simply lack the capacity and knowledge to correctly manage and close complex legal work. They may be very well suited for certain areas, but the moment you leave the minors and start playing in the majors, everything goes off the rails.

Serious talent requires serious compensation, which sets a floor on hourly rates; regardless of overhead. If that is too difficult to understand, good luck in business. It can be (and is) simultaneously true that the legal market is flooded with under-employed lawyers willing to discount and jump through hoops for work, and yet great lawyers who can manage and navigate specialized complexity/scale are in very high demand and short supply. 

Fast growth requires scalability. Switching lawyers is costly.

A startup can go from 2 founders needing to just incorporate to needing fast VC, employment law, tax, licensing, etc. support in just 1-2 years; sometimes sooner. You’ve got a VC term sheet on the table, 10 equity grants that need to get done in 2 days, a resolution to the issues with the VP you just fired, and assistance finalizing that LOI with the big customer that will help close your round; and you need all of this done this week. Virtually every single startup that has switched to MEMN from solo lawyers has had the same universal complaint: they are SLOW.

Of course they’re slow. All that (air quotes) “unnecessary overhead” they cut out to get you that awesome hourly rate is precisely what could’ve funded the institutional resources that ensure legal work keeps moving: a well-trained team to collaborate with, technology (and training for technology) that streamlines unnecessary tasks, non-lawyer professionals to knock out checklist items while the lawyers focus on the big stuff. Scaling companies need legal teams, and max out a solo lawyer very quickly.  If a single solo lawyer happens to peculiarly have all the time in the world, please re-read my comments on talent markets.

And if you think it’s smart to go with the solo who is ‘cheaper’ and then switch quickly to a firm: again, a reality check. Switching lawyers/firms is costly. The new lawyers have to familiarize themselves with what the prior guy did, on forms that they (usually) aren’t familiar with. That takes time, and increases the likelihood of errors. Finding a firm that can scale-down for very early-stage, but then scale up when needed, all using its own forms and resources, is far smarter than taking an iterative approach with your legal team.

In short, the changing legal landscape available to tech companies is being driven very much by technology, and it’s been great not just for entrepreneurs, but also for lawyers looking for alternative platforms to work from.  I’m a big fan of how solo lawyer marketplaces are helping connect demand with supply in areas where the ‘overhead’ of firms really is unnecessary.

But be very careful about buying into any marketing suggesting that there’s this untapped market of great solo “startup lawyers” just waiting to fill your startup’s legal needs at unbelievably low rates.  Solo law works great for small businesses, who don’t scale fast;  and also for certain legal specialties where projects are very compartmentalized. But true startup/vc law requires institutional resources and well-trained, well-coordinated teams of lawyers/non-lawyersThe goal of tech startups is to scale quickly.  But solo lawyers can’t scale at all. That means that solo “startup lawyers” are, at best, a bad fit; and at worst, an oxymoron. 

Luddites v. Tech Utopians: 409A and Legal

Background Reading:

TL;DR: Luddites pretend that technology can’t out-do them at anything. Tech utopians pretend tech can do everything. The truth lies in the middle.

In my sphere of the world, I interact with two profiles of people, both of whom I find somewhat obnoxious.

The first are luddites; often lawyers. These people cannot fathom the idea of clients wanting anything less than hand-crafted, white-glove attention to every legal matter. The compromises on quality and customization brought about by software and automation tools are an offense to their professionalism. They’ll walk you through 10 ways in which they can beat a piece of software, completely oblivious to the fact that 99.9% of the market doesn’t give a damn, if the software’s output is good enough.

The second are the opposite of luddites; what I’d call tech utopiansoften young founders or engineers. To these folks, effectively everything legal professionals do is hand-waiving non-sense, charging hundreds of dollars an hour to fill in forms.  Build a simple automation tool, or DIY checklist for them, and their eyes light up; enraptured with how ‘smart’ they are for not ‘wasting’ money on legal services. And I happily admit to a bit of schadenfreude when they end up paying 10x later for cleanup, as part of their education in the value of legal counsel.

Luddites are in self-denial regarding how much of their work can actually be done quite well, and sometimes better, by technology. Tech Utopians are in denial about how much work still requires, and will require for a very very long time, highly-trained, highly-intelligent people who can analyze and deliver things that even the most advanced technology cannot. And yes, those people are way more expensive than software.

The bottom 25% of most professions is probably dead in the water relative to software; think TurboTax and LegalZoom. As AI becomes more sophisticated, that will probably move up to something closer to 50%. This is quite visible in law as lower ranked schools (many of which are a racket) are getting sued by debt-saddled graduates who can’t find jobs, and the credentials of lawyers at well-paying firms edge up each year.  To some extent, it’s never been better to be an elite lawyer. It’s never been worse to be any other kind.

Tech-Enabled Lawyers

The truth about almost every profession, at least when you move beyond the lower rungs, is that technology is a supplement, not a replacement, for people. It’s a tool. And a very powerful one for those who can figure out how to leverage it.

MEMN’s recruiting process is designed to systematically filter out luddites. That’s because, not only do I simply not have the time or desire to waste hours of my life trying to train them, but technology (automation, machine learning, communication tech, project management, etc. etc.) is so deeply integrated into our workflows that to add anyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ into the mix would cause a total breakdown. Before I look at emotional or analytical intelligence, or communication skills (all of which are important), I want to know what kinds of technology this person already uses in her/his life.

When lawyers from other firms ask how they might operate and scale leanly like MEMN, my answer is as swift as it is depressing: “first, you have to fire half of your payroll.” They usually start laughing, until they see the dead serious look on my face. The legal profession is full of luddites, everywhere; even among the younger generation and in firms that service tech clients. And there’s no room for them in tech-enabled law firms. “Get it” or get out.

And yet with all of the technology that we leverage, I tell every single MEMN client that we are not cheap, and never will be. Cheaper than our true competitors, certainly. And dramatically more responsive. But talent costs money.

409A: Trim that fat

When I wrote 409A as a Service: Cash Cows Get Slaughtered a few years ago, highlighting how eShares was using their own technology to trim the fat in an industry that (in my opinion) really was in many cases extorting startups, the response from the luddites was predictable. “Here are 10 reasons why you can’t automate a 409A valuation.”

Over the years, eShares as a platform has grown (as I knew they would), and many of our clients have been thrilled to take advantage of their service. Tech-enabled 409A; not fully automated. They recently published a blog post called The art and science behind an eShares 409A breaking down how automation is used in their reports, and how it’s not.

The future of professional services belongs to people who embrace technology and let it do what it does best, without diminishing the areas where human intelligence and creativity are superior, and will continue to be so for a very long time. Not tech-less. Not tech-only. Tech-enabled. 

How to Avoid “Captive” Company Counsel

Background Reading: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

This post is going to make some people uncomfortable. People who work with me know that I’m not the type who likes to irritate others just for the fun of it. But I’m always willing to say something that needs to be said, and I’ve always structured my business relationships and life in a way that I’m not prevented from saying it.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Inexperience v. Seasoned Veterans

Founders, particularly inexperienced first-time founders, face enormous uncertainty and opacity as they build their companies. In that environment, they’re tasked with making complex long-term decisions, on behalf of themselves and other stakeholders, with very high-stakes implications; including distributional implications as to who gets what share of the limited pie, and who gets to decide when the pie gets eaten.

More so, as founders raise capital, they engage with highly experienced, sophisticated, repeat player parties who have gone through the same process dozens of times. Those parties (investors) are typically aligned with founders/management in the sense that they want the company to be a success, but there is significant misalignment in the fact that each side wants their share of the pie to be larger than the other, and each side often disagrees on when it’s time to start eating. In the case of institutional investors, they have a legal obligation (to their own investors) to get as high of a return for their investment as possible; in other words, to get as much of the pie for themselves (and as large of a pie) as they can.

Counsel should level the playing field. 

In this environment: inexperienced founders/management working with highly seasoned third-parties with significant misaligned financial motivations, founders/management have to rely on trusted advisors to level the playing field; to ensure that their inexperience is not leveraged unfairly to their detriment. 

Without question, one of, if not “the” core advisor that startups turn to for leveling the playing field in interacting with highly seasoned investors, particularly at early stage, is Company Counsel; the lawyers hired to represent the company. Startup lawyers have a front-row seat to deals/activities in the market that cover a much broader, and larger, area than any particular investor sees, and they leverage that expertise to help startup teams navigate what, to them, is brand new territory.

Company counsel’s job is not to represent the founders personally – see A Startup Lawyer is Not a Founder’s Lawyer – nor the investors, but the entire company, including all of its stockholders as a whole. The best analogue I can think of is a family therapist, who doesn’t represent the parents or the children, but is looking for the well-being of the family unit.  If someone is threatening the well-being of the family (the company), or trying to unfairly dominate it in a counter-productive way, the therapist (company counsel) helps address it. Sidenote: my job really does resemble that of a therapist sometimes.

The best company lawyers combine a “win-win” attitude (grow the pie) with a long-sighted, subtle skepticism over each individual actor’s motivations; monitoring how actions could result in unfairly taking one person’s part of the pie and handing it to someone else.

Many startup lawyers are “captive” to institutional investors. 

So the founders-investor relationship is inherently imbalanced in favor of the seasoned, experienced investors at the table, and company counsel is supposed to play a strong role in correcting the imbalance. Clearly then, any factors that raise doubts as to the independence of company counsel; factors that might make him/her ‘captive’ to the interests of the money at the table, are cause for serious concern.

In “Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers” I described how the business development practices of certain startup/vc lawyers give companies every reason to be worried that their company counsel is inherently incapable of providing that ‘balance’ that they are supposed to rely on.  Many lawyers know that if they can win a relationship with a VC fund, that relationship can be worth dozens of deals/clients to them in a manner of just a few years; far far more efficient biz dev than going after companies one by one. So building economic ties with those VCs becomes a major source of business for lawyers, including lawyers who act as company counsel. 

I don’t waste any breathe or time trying to actually convince anyone that this scenario is a serious conflict of interest problem; certainly not lawyers. See the Upton Sinclair quote above.  I simply explain to founders/management in very clear terms how things in fact work, and let smart people arrive at their own conclusions. Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Chess: Losing the negotiation before it starts. 

In my school days before becoming a lawyer, I found negotiation strategy and psychology to be a fascinating area to study. Winning a negotiation and getting what you want in a deal is, to those who are observant, an intricate game of human behavioral chess. To get what I want, I could simply negotiate very aggressively at the negotiation table. That can work. But there’s a cost to it. It spends social capital that I’d prefer to keep. I come off as overly self-interested, when as a long-term player I’d prefer to be seen as a friendly, trustworthy guy; in line my PR/marketing efforts.

A much more effective strategy is to win by preventing the negotiation altogether.  A simple checkers player wins by brute force negotiation. But a ‘chess player’ in business wins by controlling the environment of the negotiation, and the people involved, and in many cases preventing negotiation entirely. Ensure companies are using my preferred lawyers, swell guys that they are, and who I know won’t step out of line with the financial ties I have on them. Then deliver a “fair” term sheet. The founders then take that term sheet to those lawyers, maybe there’s a little back-and-forth for good measure, and we move forward, with ‘our guys’ on the inside long-term.

By convincing founders/management to use captive company counsel, investors can get what they want – both in a financing and long-term – without even having to negotiate much for it. When requesting certain terms, making certain decisions, or engaging in certain behaviors, independent company counsel will properly advise the team on how to respond or defend themselves; but captive counsel will just say it’s all normal and standard, lest he anger the people really funding his salary. 

I know some people will try to stop me right there. I’m being overly cynical here, they’d say. This is just how the business works. Surely no serious investor would actually use their influence over company counsel to push things unfairly in their favor.

Oh really? Many VC lawyers, including myself personally, have observed situations in which a negotiation is not going in the direction an investor would like, and off-the-record phone calls to company counsel get made. “We’re hoping to preserve our long-term relationship here, beyond just one deal.” “Our fund is actively seeking firms to partner with long-term.” “If this deal goes *as hoped*, we’d love to explore other opportunities to work together.”  To a lawyer who plays both sides of the table, you are one deal, while a VC fund’s “favor” can mean many, many deals.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking that favor is free.

I am happy to have a discussion about the issues I bring up here, and to be clear, there are many well-respected investors who respect the appropriate boundaries.  But please don’t try to feed me or companies candy-coated bullshit about the angelic “professionalism” of business parties when 7, 8, 9 figures are on the line, and a few easy phone calls and veiled threats (or bribes) can ensure they stay in the ‘right place.’ If your investors would never make those phone calls, then there shouldn’t be a problem with selecting company counsel with which they can’t make those phone calls. 

Cost control as sleight-of-hand. 

Notice the subtleness in how certain investors (including some blogs) talk about lawyers and legal fees. Why can’t we just close a deal for a few thousand dollars? This stuff has become so standard, let’s just keep the negotiations “between the business parties” and close this thing quickly.

Yes, let’s move fast (read: not discuss the terms much) and keep it “between the business parties”; where one side is inexperienced and doing it for the first time, and the other side has done it 50 times. That’ll keep it “fair.”

We’re negotiating and discussing transactions where even small changes could mean millions of dollars in one pocket or another, but let’s “control the legal fees” to save $10-20K right now. Yeah, gotta watch the legal budget. Really appreciate your “concern” there.

If you are building a company on a trajectory to be worth at least a comfortably 8 or 9-figure exit (which if you are talking to serious tech investors, you are), the idea that you should minimize time spent working with counsel, because it’s all just boilerplate and you’re better off keeping the legal fees for something more valuable, is a mirage set up to keep teams ignorant of what they’re getting into, and how they can properly navigate it. Telling a company “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds suspicious. “Let’s save some legal fees” sounds much better. But there’s no difference. You are being played. 

Balanced, but also competent. 

Stepping back a bit, it’s important to also clarify what I am not saying in this post. I am not saying that investors and other stakeholders in a company should not have an interest in ensuring that company counsel is competent and trustworthy. Founders do occasionally engage lawyers, typically for affordability reasons, that simply do not understand the market norms of venture capital financing. Using those types of lawyers ends up being a disaster, because they will slow down deals and offer all kinds of comments that aren’t about ensuring fairness and balance, but are simply the result of their not knowing how these types of deals get done. That will drive the legal bill through the roof, with little benefit.

Company counsel should have strong experience in venture capital deals.  Sometimes when investors request a change in company counsel, they have valid concerns about that counsel’s competence. Assess the merits of those concerns. However, it is one thing for your investors to say “this lawyer won’t work,” and then leave it to the company to find new, independent counsel. It is a completely different, and far more questionable, thing for them to insist that you use their preferred lawyer. 

Avoiding captive counsel. 

Here are a few simple questions to ask a set of lawyers to ensure they can be relied upon as company counsel to fairly represent a VC-backed company, particularly one with inexperienced founders:

  • What venture funds / investor funds do you personally (the lawyer you’re directly working with) represent as investor counsel, and how many deals have you done in the past 3 years for them?
  • What about your law firm generally? (for very large firms, this is less important)
  • How many of your firm’s clients are portfolio companies of X fund, and how did you become connected to those companies? May I reach out to the companies to confirm?
  • Can I get your commitment to not pursue investor-side work for X fund while you are our company counsel?

Larger ecosystems and larger law firms are generally less prone to this problem, because it is harder for individual players to really throw their weight around as a percentage of a larger firm’s revenue. That is to say, if the lawyer you’re working with doesn’t personally represent/rely upon X fund, but some other lawyer in the large law firm does, it’s less likely those “phone calls” could be effectively made. Although even in Silicon Valley and NYC BigLaw I’ve seen situations in which a fund will ‘nudge’ a set of founders to their preferred partner at a large firm. 100% captive.

In smaller firms, which are significantly more exposed to this problem due to their size, you’ll sometimes find that a single fund accounts for a massive percentage of that firm’s pipeline revenue. Those lawyers will slap their mothers if the fund asks them to, and companies are wise to avoid using them as company counsel.

The costs to companies of having captive counsel can be severe. Rushed, unfair sales because a particular fund’s LPs suddenly decided they need liquidity. Refusals to pursue other potential investors because the ‘right’ term sheet from ‘friendly’ investors has been delivered. Executive changes installing ‘friendly’ new management without an objective recruiting or vetting process. Early firing of founders without reasonable opportunities for coaching. The list goes on.

This is not theoretical. When company counsel is captive, their passivity will allow the preferences of a portion of the cap table to dictate the trajectory of the entire company, without the checks and balances that a properly governed company should have. And yet the sad fact is that inexperienced founders often don’t even have the frame of reference to know it is happening, or that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Many just assume, wrongly, that “this is how these things work,” when really that’s only how it works when you hire advisors who can’t, no matter how much they protest basic facts of human behavior, be objective. 

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 RavikantLawyers or Insurance Salesman?

This issue is not about labeling one group of market players as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad.’ Hardly. There are many, many investors in the market who are phenomenal people with deep ethics. They should have nothing to worry about in ensuring their portfolio companies hire competent, independent counsel. And the best companies always maintain transparent, friendly relationships with their investors.

This is about acknowledging that no one in any tech ecosystem ever has more skin in the game, financially and emotionally, than first-time entrepreneurs; not even close.  And yet at the same time, their inexperience means that their closest advisors play an outsized role in helping them navigate the various relationships and risks that they are exposed to. Pushing startups to use their investors’ lawyers as company counsel is, plainly, an unjustifiable mechanism of control; one that anyone who supports entrepreneurship and tech “ecosystems” should not tolerate. 

People with far more experience and power than tech entrepreneurs will demand that their company counsel be independent and objective, because the fairest outcomes result when everyone at the table is well-advised. Ignore all attempts to argue the contrary. Founders should demand the exact same for their companies.