A friend mentioned to me the other day that, as much great content as there is on Startup Law, there isn’t a simple list of things a founder team should assess in choosing their own company counsel. So here it is, leveraging past SHL posts in a distilled form.
Background Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained.
Are they actually a “startup lawyer”?
The number of lawyers over the years who have attempted to re-brand themselves as startup lawyers – meaning corporate lawyers with a heavy specialization in emerging technology and venture capital – has gone up significantly. Law has numerous specialties and subspecialties, much like healthcare, and you want to ensure that, if you’re building an early-stage technology company looking to raise outside capital, your main lawyer(s) has deep experience in exactly that.
See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. The last thing you want to end up with is a litigator, patent lawyer, or small business lawyer who thinks that, because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, he suddenly knows startup law.
If you’re unsure, ask for a list of deals they’ve led and closed in the last 6 months.
Are they sufficiently experienced (Senior Level)?
Some firms use what’s often referred to as “de-skilling” to significantly water-down the services they offer to early-stage startups. That means literally connecting you with advisors who are less skilled; making your main legal contacts junior professionals or automation software. Having junior and non-legal staff as the main legal contacts for a founder team can be extremely problematic, and will go off the rails the moment the startup runs into a complex, high-stakes context where they need fast senior-level advisory; which often happens in the early days.
Talk to a Partner or Senior Attorney with at least 5+ years of experience with complex transactions, and non-cookie-cutter contexts. Make sure they, as a person, feel like a good fit (personality, values, experience) for your company and team; not just the firm broadly. Paralegals and junior lawyers are great for “routine” items, and every good firm has them in the background, but you do not want them as your main legal contacts. If a firm puts layers of junior staff and other support professionals in-between you and senior legal help, that’s a red flag. We’re talking about your closest legal advisors on your most high-stakes issues; not the purchasing of a piece of productized software. The individual people matter.
Do they have access to other specialist lawyers that you’ll need?
In line with the above, the first lawyer you’ll need is a startup lawyer, but once the business gets going, you’ll quickly need others, including commercial/tech transactions lawyers, tax lawyers, data/privacy lawyers, patent lawyers, trademarks, litigation, etc. They do not need to be under the same firm (and you often benefit if they aren’t), but a serious startup lawyer who represents scaled companies must have direct access to these kinds of specialists to provide responsive counsel to their clients.
A simple “yes, we have access” is not enough. Ask for names, info on how they normally engage, and do your diligence.
Is their infrastructure / cost structure right-sized for what you’re building?
Be realistic about what your company will look like over the next 5 years if things go as planned, and hire a lawyer/firm that can serve that company, without scalability problems. Are you building a narrow app for which a successful exit would be a few million dollars? A solo lawyer would probably be a good fit for you.
Do you legitimately see yourself as on a potential IPO or >$500MM exit track, and targeting a $15-20+MM Series A in a year or two? Law firms that represent “unicorns” may be a good fit for you, even if they’re much more expensive. Don’t go cheap, and don’t trust upstarts claiming to be able to handle hyper-growth startups. You need a trusted marquee brand with infrastructure already built and validated for hyper-growth.
Are you realistically on more of a $3-10MM Series A, and $50-300MM exit path; or maybe you’re more interested in scaling on revenue alone? You’re going to get too big for a solo, fast, but “unicorn” firms are overkill for you and will potentially (i) not prioritize your needs, given you’ll be small potatoes, and (ii) shorten your runway significantly because of their high rates. Try a high-end boutique law firm.
Are they familiar and aligned with the norms / expectations of your likely investors?
In line with the idea of hiring a right-sized law firm, if you’re not on the unicorn track, you will run into problems if you hire lawyers who generally represent (and target) companies who are.
We see this often when, for example, law firms from Silicon Valley represent a tech startup raising local money in, say, Texas or Colorado. Ecosystems of different sizes often have very different norms and expectations, and you can run into cultural or even process conflicts when your lawyers simply don’t speak the same language as your investors, or other stakeholders. The largest deals in the largest tech ecosystems – SV and NYC – have much closer market norms, and smaller/mid-size deals in smaller ecosystems like Austin, Boulder, Seattle, etc. often behave similarly among themselves.
Are they not “captive” to investors you’re likely to raise money from?
Entrepreneurs, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, lean heavily on their startup lawyer(s) for core strategic guidance in navigating negotiations / issues with their main investors. Experienced, independent counsel can be a young startup’s most important “equalizer” when dealing with people who are 50x as experienced as the founding team on deal structuring and corporate governance; which is why aggressive VCs will often go to such great lengths to convince, or force, a set of founders to use their preferred (captive) lawyers as company counsel.
Don’t use lawyers with any dependencies on the money across the table, or you’ll compromise one of your most strategic assets in navigating all the high-stakes complexities of fundraising and board management. In fact, if your lead investors seem very interested in you using a particular firm or set of firms, now you know exactly which firms you should not use. Talk to other specialized, experienced firms except for those.
Finally, do they “not suck”?
After all of the above, do these folks actually answer their damn e-mails quickly enough? Do they have good technology / processes in place to make your life easier and work efficiently? Do they give real strategic advice, and not make tons of costly mistakes that you end up having to pay for in the long run?
See: Lawyers and NPS.
There are lawyers who will check all of the above boxes, and yet after you talk to their clients, you’ll find that they just suck to work with. Do your homework / research on the more objective checklist items, but in the end never forget to choose lawyers who actually care about doing all the subtle human-oriented things that result in good service.
post-script: A few questions that don’t belong on the checklist:
- Is the lawyer in my city? – Nothing about local city law applies to startup lawyering. Think regionally, or focus on their client base resembling what you’re building.
- Can they introduce me to investors? – See: Why I (still) don’t make investor intros. There are far more effective ways to get connected to investors than through intros from a law firm.