TL;DR: BigLaw’s very high operating costs require it to charge 3-4x of what its typical lawyers actually earn. This makes rates often stratospherically high. While billion-dollar companies that use BigLaw can afford those rates, early-stage startups often cannot. BigLaw is responding at times by hyper-standardizing and hyper-automating early-stage work. This has significant downsides, as companies lose out on flexibility, advocacy, and strategic guidance for very high impact projects, like financings. Much of this standardization ends up favoring VCs over startup teams. Elite lean boutique law firms offer an alternative approach, in which lower overhead allows for lower costs without requiring substantial inflexibility. In the end, this trend toward over-automation is leading many clients and lawyers to balk, and alternative approaches for achieving efficiency (while remaining flexible) are rightfully emerging.
Lawyers are not cheap. Elite lawyers – the kind with very extensive top-tier training, experience, and ability to handle high-stakes complexity – are in fact quite expensive.
Then again, elite human talent of all sorts is quite expensive. Top doctors make over half a million a year. Top software developers can make into the millions, and their “bugs” are much more easily corrected than bugs in contracts; which by design often can’t be “fixed” once they are signed.
I candidly find it amusing when “tech people” criticize elite lawyers for the amounts they earn, given what similarly elite talent in other industries (tech included) makes. If you’re expecting an apology, it’s going to be a while.
That being said, criticizing what people earn is not the same thing as criticizing what firms charge. There are in fact quite a few firms in “BigLaw,” including those who work with startups, where a lawyer charging over $1,000 an hour is in fact earning only a small fraction of that, maybe $200 or $250. “The beast” (the bloated institution) absorbs the rest. That, in my opinion as a leader of an elite lean boutique firm precisely designed to address this problem, is a very valid criticism.
Traditional elite law firms in “BigLaw” have virtually all designed themselves, with minor variances, around a similar high-overhead business model. They charge 3-4x+ what their typical lawyers are actually earning. That overhead pays for extremely posh offices designed to signal “prestige,” armies of non-lawyer staff, lavish events and other programming, as well as a small cadre of equity partners who absorb millions, sometimes tens of millions, in profits every year per partner without doing much of the actual billing.
The fact that BigLaw has entrenched itself in this way of doing legal business makes it very difficult, even impossible, to meaningfully address “efficiency” at an institutional level. It would require sacrificing too many sacred cows with political leverage in the firms’ bureaucracies. Thus when BigLaw does try to do something to become more efficient, or at least appear more efficient, its options are constrained. One option that is always on the table is adopting (often pricey) automation software, because it ostensibly allows charging less without actually having to do human legal work (contextual, flexible, strategic) any more efficiently.
Don’t deliver more efficient lawyers. Instead, make clients use dumbed-down, inflexible, and often quite clunky software. They can talk to professionals only once they can afford $900/hr for an associate and $1400/hr for a partner.
I’ve written about this issue before, such as in Vaporware Technology Won’t Hide Your Firm’s Business Model Problems (on Above the Law). Lean elite boutique law firms are about what I call substractive innovation. Finding efficiency by removing unnecessary (for clients) costs, and re-designing a firm’s operations around that leaner operating model. Yes, this does involve technology, but a particular kind of technology meant to replace unneeded overhead and traditional processes; not to simply layer on new software without otherwise changing much at all about the firm itself.
BigLaw, for the above reasons, is usually incapable of this kind of innovation. It virtually always leans more towards additive so-called “innovation” – buying more and more things that purportedly bring efficiency.
Tying this all together. BigLaw – which in 99.9% of cases works with billion-dollar multinational high-stakes projects for whom charging over $1,000 an hour is not a budget problem – has to charge a lot for its lawyers. 3-4x what those lawyers actually earn. The portion of BigLaw that actually touches early-stage startups – 0.1% of what BigLaw as a whole category really does – faces a problem. Early startups are not billion-dollar multi-national entities.
That’s a big constraint on what BigLaw as it relates to startups can really charge. Startups are constantly balking at what they are charged by BigLaw. The way some of BigLaw is addressing this is by removing their elite lawyers almost entirely from that segment of work. Automation – I would say over automation – combined with what is often called in industry circles “de-skilling” (delegating to lower-level staff).
BigLaw is thus heavily incentivized to over-automate Startup Law. As I’ve written before in many contexts, automation in law is not a free lunch. Not even close. It relies on heavy standardization and inflexibility for it to be workable at all. The problem is that a lot of what founders ask lawyers to do in early-stage Startup Law is extremely high-stakes from a financial perspective. Even minor tweaks to language in docs can have 8 to 10+ figure implications. We are not talking about parking tickets or coffee shops.
The extremely myopic way in which pockets of Silicon Valley have over-adopted YC’s Post-Money SAFE is a perfect example of this. Only now are many founders coming to realize how much of an “own goal” it was to let YC pretend their terms were founder friendly and “efficient.” In that article I show how literally adding a single sentence to the Post-Money SAFE can have tens of millions of dollars in improved economics for founders, and yet the vast majority of so-called “efficient” automated startup financing tools to do not allow for this tweak. People are pretending they are saving founders money. What they are really doing is “saving” a few hundred dollars (at most) in legal fees while letting VCs (including YC) take millions from startup teams.
There are countless ways in which over-standardization and over-automation in Startup Law are costing startups and founders enormous amounts of money. Every attempt to create a so-called “standard” term sheet for equity rounds ends up with VC-favorable economic and power terms that simply are in no way, shape, or form a universal “standard.” See also Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law.
Because VCs (and accelerators) are “repeat players,” whereas individual founding teams are not, they have the market leverage to heavily bias so-called “standards” in their favor. And the software companies intending to profit from all of this legal hyper-automation are happy to help them in the process. I wrote about the outsized leverage and influence that repeat players have in startup ecosystems, including over many law firms, in Relationships and Power in Startup Ecosystems.
These automated financing software companies – who need law to become hyper-standardized so that they can ever-so-generously step in to charge for the automation – are heavily incentivized to publish biased “data” about so-called “standards.” For example, they’ll build a software tool offering only 2 or 3 ways to do a seed funding, all heavily standardized and therefore inflexible. They’ll market this tool, and then publish data saying things like, “80% of seed deals are Post-Money SAFEs, and so it is a standard.” Actually (if you read the footnotes), 80% of seed deals on your half-baked automated platform are Post-Money SAFEs. Selection bias. That is not the same thing as saying 80% of all seed deals in the country or world are.
These tools are lying with so-called “data” to promote their own wares. For that, who can really blame them? Everyone’s got to make a buck. But let’s please stop pretending that they actually care about what’s best for startups, or their founders and employees. I don’t criticize people for talking their book. I criticize people for pretending to be far more benevolent and selfless than they really are.
Lawyers should be telling startups and their founders whenever they are facing these sorts of issues. They should be telling founders that the Post-Money SAFE is not a universal standard, and that many many deals end up customized, or even with entirely different structures, to make the economics better. They should be negotiating term sheets to better position the governance of their client, instead of letting some VC dictate what “standard” means. Instead, many of them are over-standardizing and over-automating. Why? Because they’re in BigLaw, and that’s what BigLaw does for startups.
Because of its institutional inability to actually do human legal work more efficiently (see above paragraphs), which involves assessing context, negotiating, tweaking, advising, etc., and the fact that Startups cannot pay over $1,000 per hour for extensive advisory, much of BigLaw is choosing to delegate the entirety of early-stage startup law to software. In my opinion, this is an abdication of the responsibility of lawyers to actually advise their clients as to what is best for them. If I were a paranoid BigLaw lawyer, I’d at least worry a little about the malpractice implications of practicing law this way.
On top of the fact that this is not actually in the best interests of startups or their stockholders, many lawyers are themselves starting to balk at the machine-like evolution of BigLaw’s way of operating. Boutique law firms, where the ratio of billed rates to lawyer earnings is more like 2x instead of BigLaw’s 3-4x (dramatic efficiency) are not just about lower rates. In many segments they are emerging as refuges for lawyers who want to step off the assembly line and actually think for their job.
When lawyers are able to charge, say, $500 per hour instead of $1100, they have time to actually negotiate for their clients. On top of this being good for the client (See: Negotiation is Relationship Building), from an intellectual standpoint it’s legitimately more enjoyable. Many ECVC lawyers prefer this way of practice over acting as if every deal before Series B should just be a cookie-cutter template.
The elite boutique law ecosystem (of which Optimal is a part) is thus emerging as a win-win countertrend to BigLaw’s tendency to over-automate and over-standardize. Many elite lawyers are tired of half-baked over-technologized (air quotes) “efficiency” that isn’t really efficient at all because of what the client loses. In moving to boutiques, lawyers get to drop their rates substantially without actually earning less. Clients get to pay substantially lower rates, while getting an actual elite human professional to help them navigate complexities and protect themselves; which many prefer over clicking a few buttons on software without ever being told what their options really were.
To summarize: the traditional cost structures of BigLaw require charging 3-4x+ of what their typical lawyers actually earn. This makes their rates, including for startups, extraordinarily high. Above $1,000 per hour in many cases. Sometimes $2,000+ per hour. Startup clients, who do not fit the billion-dollar mold of BigLaw’s average client, obviously cannot afford stratospheric legal bills. BigLaw is responding by accepting hyper-standardization and hyper-automation for its earliest stage work. Clients spend more and more time interacting with junior professionals and software that operate only in very narrow, inflexible lanes; depriving clients of real advocacy or negotiation on high-stakes issues. As a result of all this, inexperienced startup teams are increasingly pushed into these myopic inflexible fundraising approaches that are costing them enormous amounts of money and governance leverage.
There are ways to avoid this problem. The one I’m obviously an advocate for is to move a lot of this legal work to leaner elite boutiques. Some of the top boutiques in ECVC can deliver real legal horse power, especially in earlier-stage deals (pre-unicorn), at half the rates of BigLaw.
There’s another option: if you absolutely are going to use BigLaw, let them charge you for what the work really takes. Why pay BigLaw at all if you’re not using the real legal talent it is designed to house? If you’re raising a $75 million equity round, yeah, you’re going to pay a few hundred thousand dollars in legal fees with BigLaw if you let them actually do their job. As a percentage of the actual raise, it’s really not that much (under 1%). The alternative – over-automation and over-standardization – will be far worse.
If that doesn’t work for a $5 million or $15 million round, then again I suggest looking into elite boutiques. Their lower rates, but still elite rosters, will produce lower legal bills without compromising on the quality of the actual advisory you’re getting. See How Much Seed Rounds Cost – Lowering Fees and Expenses Safely to understand why boutique law is an increasingly popular option among top startup teams for earlier financing rounds. Boutiques are not doing pre-seed deals all day. We have clients closing Series A, B, C, even later, and exiting at 8-9-figure valuations. As I often say, the B in BigLaw is for billions. There’s a lot that happens before billions.
Straw-man prevention disclaimer – Let me be very clear here. I am not just a Partner at Optimal. I am also its Chief Technology Officer. I work with a lot of legal tech startups. I love legal tech, and I even like targeted, thoughtful automation. I’m particularly interested in upcoming ways to integrate AI to enhance lawyers’ productivity.
Some people with very loud microphones like to pretend that the legal profession is full of nothing but luddites who want to milk the entire world for fully bespoke, terribly inefficient work product. In startup ecosystems, this attitude is most often peddled by VCs who want your lawyers to shut up, because when lawyers shut up VCs get what they want, and software automation tools; because they want you to use their inflexible software instead of an actual human.
What I am advocating for here is a more balanced perspective on when automation really is in the best interests of legal clients, and really is streamlining things, relative to when it is hiding all sorts of biases and costs because the real driver isn’t what’s best for the client but some extraneous factor like institutional constraints. I’m a big fan of automating basic option grants, which no serious professional wants to waste their time on anyway. But raising millions or tens of millions of dollars, and setting permanent power & governance terms that will influence huge segments of the modern economy? Hold the F up.
As I wrote here, the “values” of the legal industry and the software industry are very different, and both serve a very important purpose in the economy. In legal, it’s expertise, context, flexibility, negotiation, leverage, compromise, trusted advocacy. It’s about having a perspective, and pushing for it, while the other side does the same.
There can be no single answer or “standard” in this value structure, because the decision-makers and process for setting it are suspect, as conflicts of interest and subjectivity abound. Companies are different. Investors are different. Goals, industries, values all vary organically across institutions and contexts. It’s contextual “truth” arrived at via a decentralized adversarial process, as opposed to a centralized proprietary one. This concept is not entirely alien to many engineers.
In software, it’s broadly about standardizing, automating, universalizing, cutting costs and centralizing data. It’s about scale and speed, reducing “friction.” In this worldview, customization and “verification” via independent review is seen as inefficient and pointless. But is it always? When the stakes are really high?
Analogies about making private startup equity operate like “frictionless” liquid public markets are spectacularly flawed. In the latter, the transactions are impacting small percentages of the company’s capitalization, and rarely altering their fundamental governance. What happens in a startup’s earliest days sets the stage for the company’s entire growth. The present dollar value may be small, but the derivative long-term impact is massive. Post-IPO, very little of what’s being negotiated fundamentally changes anything.
Nowhere am I saying here that the legal industry’s values should take full precedence over those of the software industry. Again, I’m a big fan of productivity tools in legal. We just need to avoid myopia in letting the software industry’s values (automation, standardization) steamroll over legal’s as it relates to high-stakes legal work simply because clients think (wrongly) that they have to use BigLaw, and BigLaw can’t make its actual lawyers cheaper. Automation and standardization can be good. Automating and standardizing everything, because we won’t consider alternative possibilities for achieving efficiency, most certainly is not.