TL;DR Nutshell: A common complaint from startups about their law firms is that, while they like their corporate counsel, the ‘specialists’ (patent, employment, benefits, export, etc.) that they end up working with suck. The core reason for this usually has to do with the incentives of large, outdated law firms to cross-sell their poorly-fitted specialists, even when better suited alternatives can be found elsewhere.
- The Tech Law Ecosystem vs. BigLaw; Except in Silicon Valley
- Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not Big Firm “Lock In”
- Navigating Referrals in a Connected Startup Ecosystem
Here are some very common complaints I’ve heard from funded startup founders about their law firms:
- The patent lawyer I got connected to knew nothing about the background technology of our product. I spent half a day explaining the basic tech/science, and frankly had to do all the legwork myself.
- The benefits/ERISA lawyer I spoke with took me through all kinds of corner cases/issues that seem far more relevant to a large company than to my startup, when all I want is an off-the-shelf equity plan and to grant a basic employee option.
- I e-mailed the employment law specialist they referred me to about a time-sensitive executive termination issue, and it took 5 days to get a response, and it ended up being a junior lawyer they ‘throw’ to companies at my stage.
- My TOS needed to cover some touchy healthcare privacy issues because of the nature of our (med-tech) product, but the guy my lawyer sent me to could barely tell me the basics of HIPAA.
Specialists and Sub-Specialists
One of the most important concepts founders need to understand in interacting with lawyers is that lawyers, just like doctors, have specialties and even sub-specialties; at least the good ones do. Corporate law is a specialty. Startup/VC Law is a sub-specialty of corporate law. There are also energy-focused corporate lawyers, healthcare-focused corporate lawyers, etc. The sub-specialties available in a city mirror the types of industries that dominate the local economy. That’s why Houston startups often use Austin tech/vc lawyers, and Austin energy companies often use Houston energy lawyers.
If you work with a generalist lawyer who dabbles in a little real estate, corporate law, litigation, and maybe does a few tax returns on the side, you’re asking for a world of pain if you’re building a scale-seeking tech company. But even if you work with a general corporate lawyer, failing to work with one who focuses on technology and venture capital (sub-specialty), you will waste time and money.
In the end, it’s all about incentives.
OK, so now you understand that depending on the issue, you need corporate, tax, patent, trademark, employment, etc. etc. specialist lawyers. The question then is: which one should you use? Large, traditional law firms (BigLaw) always have the same answer: “use ours!” Nevermind that the benefits lawyer I’m sending you to spends 95% of her time talking to billion-dollar companies and will take 10 days to respond to your itty-bitty (to her) issue. Nevermind that “my patent guy” has a BS in chemical engineering and still uses a Blackberry, and you’re trying to patent a piece of consumer hardware. Nevermind that the lawyer I just sent you to keeps (as compensation) only 20% of the $650/hr he charges you, and there are far smarter lawyers in his specialty at a boutique charging half his rate.
Two law firm concepts: “origination credit” (I make money off of the lawyers in my firm that you use) and “cross-selling” (my firm expects you to use our firm’s specialists) are at the core of why so many startups end up wasting time, energy, and money dealing with specialist lawyers who (for startups) suck; because they are either over-kill, not responsive enough, or simply unnecessarily expensive.
Ecosystem v. BigLaw
You would think that, as a startup/VC lawyer at a boutique law firm, I would always tell companies that they should avoid BigLaw and choose focused boutiques instead (the “ecosystem” I write about). You’d be wrong. No matter how much disruption occurs in healthcare, pushing medicine out of hospitals and closer to the patient, you will always need the Mayo Clinics of the world. In that sense, BigLaw still “works” very well in a very specific context, and that context is very large, complex M&A transactions and IPOs.
We regularly tell clients that, while our senior partners have closed and managed $750MM, even billion-dollar deals as partners in BigLaw, boutique firms are institutionally not designed for fast, complex, very large transactions requiring armies of lawyers and other staff who can be rapidly deployed onto a large deal. That being said, the vast majority of startups, even successful ones, will never, not even in their exit transaction, need those kinds of resources.
The “max out” size of boutique firms varies with their structure and the credentials of their attorneys (particularly partners, who manage the large deals). At MEMN, we say about $400MM is where our model usually stops making sense, and we’ll even assist a client in finding successor counsel to handle that size of deal. At that point, you’re probably not worried too much about your legal bill as a proportion of the overall transaction proceeds, and the players you’re working with (particularly I-Bankers in IPOs) will often require you to use a short list of brands simply for marketing and insurance purposes.
But a $100MM acquisition? $200MM? With the right boutique corporate partners running the deal (trust me, you want real partners running your exit; read bios), and the right specialists chosen for the project, wherever they are, that is not (and has not been) a problem. The newly emerging ecosystem of top-tier boutique law firms can easily thrive while still being totally honest about its limitations. It cannot represent Uber. Uber needs BigLaw. But there are plenty of successful tech companies who aren’t Uber but still need serious legal counsel.
If you have decided that you want and need BigLaw, my completely honest suggestion to you is that you go all-in and choose one of the very small number of Silicon Valley based brands that regularly represent the tech unicorns of the world. While you will still deal with several of the “poor fit” issues that plague young startups using over-sized law firms, those firms are the most likely to at least have specialists and sub-specialists who understand issues faced by technology companies, and they at least try to work well with startups. You’re “locked in,” but at least you’re locked into a place with lawyers who can competently address your needs.
Choosing a BigLaw firm that is not one of the top tech brands will be like going on your once-in-a-lifetime luxury off-roading trip in the mountains, and buying a $200K Ferrari for the task. Your friends (who aren’t morons) will show up in souped-up Range Rovers. If you’re going big on bling, at least do it correctly.
For the rest of the world’s founders who need serious legal counsel, but honestly don’t see themselves needing the institutional resources of BigLaw any time soon, the emerging boutique ecosystem (which is thriving outside of Silicon Valley) offers a serious answer to the “my specialist lawyers suck” problem: well-compensated, top-tier, responsive lawyers at right-sized firms, chosen not because of background economic incentives, but because they are the right lawyers for the job.