TL;DR: Law firms inflate their costs when, instead of selling legal services, they’re actually selling prestige, luxurious offices, fun social events, fundraising connections, and all kinds of other things that aren’t legal services. The emergence of the lean boutique ecosystem is driven by pragmatic clients who just want to pay for highly experienced and specialized legal counsel, not all of that “other stuff.”
Background reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained.
If you want to understand the economics of law firms down to its most essential form, including “emerging companies” law firms that play the startup game, you can look at it this way: the main “costs” of law firms are (a) lawyers/legal talent, and then (b) literally everything else.
Analyzing the direct compensation cost of lawyers/legal talent makes it clear why no serious law firm is ever “cheap.” Serious lawyers with the rare intellectual horse power and experience (Partners and senior lawyers, not juniors) to manage massive non-routine complexity while avoiding expensive “bugs” that can’t be fixed unilaterally (the way code can be), and who’ve gone through 3 years of an over-priced education (did I say that out loud?) costing over $200K all-in, do not work for middle class compensation. Especially not the Partners who keep the whole thing together and manage the highest-level issues.
The core cost of serious legal talent sets a hard floor on the bare minimum a law firm can charge just for delivering the A-players. Firms lacking the credibility to charge above that floor simply can’t hire the right people, and therefore can’t safely manage the kind of legal work that the top-tier handles. Those firms I refer to, lovingly, as “B-players.” The best software developers don’t work for cheap, and neither do the best lawyers. Some firms try to play games by pushing clients to work mainly with juniors and paralegals in order to save on their compensation costs – called “de-skilling” in the professional world – but the smartest clients see what’s happening and don’t trust their most high-stakes, strategic legal matters to less-skilled people operating on checklists and scripts.
Analyzing the “everything else” in the typical law firm cost structure starts to highlight just why many law firms charge prices that are dramatically higher than the cost of their legal talent. Some law firms, including many who market themselves to startups, are actually selling many things other than legal services. Those “other things” include:
- Prestige – “We represented Apple and Uber. Using us signals your intent to be the next Apple or Uber.”
- Extremely expensive real estate (offices), where you can feel amazing about working with lawyers who have such great taste in architecture.
- Extremely expensive marketing events where you can mingle with other “exclusive” people and signal how amazing you are for working with such prestigious lawyers with great taste in architecture.
- Support staff who purportedly are there to hold your hand to fundraise, work on pitch decks, talk to investors, etc.
- Other staff building and managing things that many clients simply don’t need.
How can some law firms charge $750+/hr, and yet at the end of the day only generate “comfortable” professional services margins – nothing remotely close to the kinds of margins that draw in VCs? After paying for their extremely expensive legal talent, they also pay for this “other stuff.” You might say that firms are being wasteful, but eliminating these costs is far easier said than done for the largest firms. At the very highest end of every market, clients expect an enormous amount of polish and velvet rope. Those law firms are status symbols. Ferrari law firms are effectively selling a luxury service, and it takes money to deliver a luxury experience.
When clients ask us what we mean at E/N by a “lean” boutique law firm, we point to the above list. Lean means not paying for all of that other stuff, because many pragmatic clients know they don’t need it from a law firm. What do clients hire us for? Legal services. Highly specialized emerging companies, commercial, and M&A legal services delivered by highly experienced legal talent. When clients peruse our bios, they understand very fast that this is not a roster of B-players. They want to hire that, and not:
Prestige? No client I work with has ever suffered from the delusion that they are the next Uber, and they therefore have no desire to embarrass themselves by trying to use a law firm to signal that they’re a Unicorn. See: Not Building a “Unicorn.”
High-end offices? Please. My clients don’t give two sh**s about what my office looks like, as long as I deliver the goods (legal services).
Fun events? There are enough startup events being thrown by enough people who actually know how to throw events. Too many, some might say. Hard pass.
Fundraising connections? We negotiate and close deals, and help clients avoid being taken advantage of by the money. But there are plenty of other people and resources in the market who are far better, and more cost/time-effective, at helping with the non-legal side of fundraising than a law firm. Smart entrepreneurs know that (i) relying on a law firm to connect you to money sends a really bad signal (paid intros are weak intros), and (ii) more often than not, law firms just connect you to other VCs that they themselves work for and have long-standing relationships with, which means dangerous conflicts of interest. See: How to avoid “captive” company counsel.
We’ve told our clients for some time that they shouldn’t ask us to connect them to investors, for the above reasons; and, remarkably, somehow they still find funding without a law firm holding their hand. Apparently there are other ways to get warm intros to investors than through a law firm. Who knew? Maybe someone should write a blog post (or 30) about it.
The law firm that is super close to your money (investors) is the last firm you want representing you in taking that money, because between you (a single company) and them (a fund with lots of deals/investments and connections) their loyalty will always be owned by an influential repeat money player. Law firms that over-play their connections to investors are unethically spinning a blatant conflict of interest into a marketing ploy, so you’ll ignore the fact that they’re not actually that good at what you should really be hiring them for: high-stakes legal.
Other staff? The other day I heard about a group of lawyers dropping millions of dollars building proprietary software, and after 2 years what do they have to show? Something that looks a whole lot like Clerky, Gust Launch, or Carta. My clients aren’t going to pay me to build something that I can buy for far less money from someone else. We sell legal services. We buy (not build) software. Try to run a professional services business like a VC-backed startup, and you’ll either burn enormous amounts of money, or never ever generate a profit for your Partners, which means you won’t actually have (real) Partners, so you’re a firm of B-players. There are no VC returns in high-end legal. The margins aren’t there. Math.
Do lean boutiques have overhead? Of course. It’s what makes them more scalable and coordinated than solo lawyers. Docusign (we’re paperless), Box (all of our clients get a Box folder to access their files), Knowledge and Project Management systems, and other off-the-shelf tech tools that smart law firms know how to integrate and use, all cost money; so do recruiting and training resources. But not that much. Any serious business has overhead, but boutiques focus on overhead actually required to deliver (guess what?) legal services; not “other stuff.”
I spend a good amount of my time talking to legal tech entrepreneurs, and adopting new tools into our firm. But I don’t burn our fees on rube goldberg tools that offer more techno-BS than actual value to our clients; and therefore aren’t worth their cost. Come at me with some nonsense about how (air quotes) “machine learning” or analyzing the “data” in contracts (is it “big data” or smaller artisanal data?) is going to DISRUPT highly complex, highly contextualized legal services from top-tier lawyers, and the bucket of water I splash in your face will be ice cold.
That lean focus on not burning money on things that don’t directly promote our end-service is what allows us to take, just as an example, a Partner who was $750/hr in BigLaw and drop their rate to $425, without changing their aggregate compensation, and while allowing them to have far better work-life balance. A win-win for both lawyer and client.
On the work-life balance point, lawyers tend to become much more skeptical of the “other stuff” their firms are paying for once they realize that all the extra overhead is directly tied to why they have to work themselves into the ground (so many hours), instead of being able to go home at a reasonable hour. More overhead means a smaller % of fees going to the actual talent, which means that talent has to work far more hours to make their comp. Again, Math. Lawyers who care about their personal lives don’t tolerate their firms burning money on nonsense. This “rationalizing” (cutting out fat) in the legal market is producing a thriving ecosystem of lean, high-end boutique law firms in various specialties; of which we are one.
We have very close relationships to many lawyers in the “Ferrari” tier of big TechLaw, in many cases because we see them on deals. Most of them intuitively understand that we are not really competing with each other. The highest end unicorn-track clients able and willing to drop $800/hr for lawyers really do expect prestige, gorgeous offices, fun events, and all kinds of other miscellaneous things from their law firm. Ours don’t. We are really selling to different people. There is no way they could run their firm like ours, and there’s no way we could run our firm like theirs. The future of the legal market is a broad ecosystem of varying firm structures catering to a broad diversity of clients with different needs, expectations, and price-points.
Our clients are very pragmatic about what they’re building, and what they want from a law firm. They’re not unicorns or even aspiring unicorns, so they see no need to use law firms that manage billion-dollar deals and IPOs. Selling for $75MM, $150MM, or $250MM is a “win” for them. They also understand that it takes real money to get serious senior lawyers and Partners who can deliver specialized and experienced high-stakes legal services for a scaling tech company. They’re willing to pay for that, but not for “everything else.”