The Race to the Bottom in Startup Law

TL;DR: There is a long-standing race to the bottom occurring in startup law, led by certain firms who’ve chosen to ignore the ethical standards of the profession in order to maximize revenue. The end-result of that race is damaged startups who are being led to believe that they’re getting “efficiency,” when what they’re really getting is biased garbage advice and a time bomb.

Background Reading:

Regulated professions are regulated for a reason. In the case of law, much like healthcare, you are dealing with significant information asymmetries on very high-stakes issues where decisions have permanent consequences; where malpractice or bad ethics can seriously and irreversibly damage a “client.” That is undeniably the case in high-growth Startup Law, where you very often have inexperienced business people (founders, early employees) navigating very complex and high-dollar issues; and to make it even harder, on the other side of those issues are often misaligned money players who are 30x as experienced at the entire game than founders/employees are.

The world of early-stage startup businesses is quite unique in this respect from the rest of the business world. In most high-dollar business contexts, there’s an equal balance of experience and influence on both sides of the table. Company A has seasoned execs, and Company B has seasoned execs. But not so in early-stage. Company X often has entrepreneurs who are doing this thing for the first time, and have very few connections to the broader business ecosystem. Investor Y, whom they are negotiating with and who influences decisions on their Board, has been in the business for 10-20+ years, has done 50-100 deals, and has spent all of that time becoming fabulously networked with other investors, accelerators, serial executives, lawyers, advisors, mentors, etc.

This imbalance presents an opportunity; an opportunity to use the experience/power inequality to push deals and high-level business decisions in the direction that the money players want, often without the inexperienced players really even understanding what is happening. Now, what is the role that lawyers (counsel) are supposed to play in this game? Lawyers serving as company counsel are supposed to take their broad level of experience and market understanding – surpassing that of most investors – and use it to “level” the playing field for the common stock (founders and early employees). Experienced, talented corporate lawyers are supposed to be the “equalizers” that early-stage companies (particularly common stockholders) rely on to ensure no one takes advantage of them on deals and corporate governance. Great for the common stock. Not so great for the clever money; which would obviously much prefer to keep the field slanted in their favor.

So let’s say I’m a very smart money player, and if I can find a way to neutralize the role of independent company counsel, to maximize my leverage, what should I do? Negotiating very aggressively against the lawyers and startups is a failed strategy. It’s too visible. Early-stage capital has become more competitive, and money players rely on personas of “friendliness” for deal flow. Angrily pounding the table would quickly shatter that persona. You need to me much smarter than that at this game.

You start with asking yourself: what do these lawyers need in order to fully do their job as strategic advisors? The answer is two-fold: (i) clients, and (ii) time. Without clients (referrals), lawyers can’t stay in business. And without time to study issues and negotiate, and ability to charge for that time, they can’t advise companies properly. That’s where the strategy lies. I often refer to this strategy as the “Race to the Bottom” in Startup Law.

Buy counsel’s favor with referrals.

As a repeat player with “access” to lots of deals and potential clients, investors can “buy” the favor of law firms by simply channeling referrals to them. First-time entrepreneurs have absolutely no counter-balancing resource in this area, because they just aren’t that well-networked or influential. Pay close attention in startup ecosystems and you’ll often realize how many of the most prominent lawyers built their practices by riding referrals from a few repeat players. Doing a great job for companies certainly can get you business, but doing a great job for investors (so that they refer companies and deals to you) can get you 20x that, because of the volume they touch.

So Step 1 of the Race to the Bottom is to make it clear to law firms that those who “behave” (by biasing the advice they give to inexperienced startups) will get business, and those who don’t won’t. The lawyers/firms most motivated by maximizing their business, and most willing to flout conflicts of interest in order to get that business, start competing at how far they can go to win the favor of these juicy referral sources, while minimizing the visibility of this game to inexperienced outsiders.

Squeeze counsel’s time.

For a company lawyer to do their job in advising a startup, they need time. Answering questions, explaining issues, and negotiating all take time, especially when the executives you’re working with are completely inexperienced (which in early-stage startups, they often are). Seasoned investors, however, don’t need nearly that much time from lawyers, because they’ve played the game 30 times already. So startups need a lot of lawyer time, but investors don’t. Opportunity? You bet.

But again we reach the “visibility” problem. If an investor simply tells the founders, “stop talking to your lawyers,” that’s too easy to read into. A far more successful narrative is: “let’s save some legal fees.”

“Your lawyer is just over-billing. Their request isn’t “standard” and is a waste of time.”

“This deal is all standard/boilerplate. Let’s move quickly to close without lawyer hand-waiving.”

“We really don’t have the budget to get lawyers involved on this Board issue.”

“I’m saving you some legal fees. Cap your legal bill at X.”

“Here, just sign this template (that I created). It’ll save you fees.”

I’ve often found it very amusing how certain aggressive investors, happy to write you large checks for funding talent wars and expensive bay area offices, suddenly have lots of (air quotes) “insights” to share when discussion turns to the legal budget. Increasing your burn rate makes you more dependent on the money, which they often like; but heaven forbid you spend capital on a service that reduces their influence/leverage. Thank goodness they’re ever so generously “looking out” for the bottom line.

If an experienced investor knows the lawyer across the table needs time to explain to inexperienced founders why the terms or decisions such investor is pushing for should be resisted, and such investor prefers that the lawyer stay quiet, the answer is not to explicitly tell the lawyer to shut up. Too visible. The investor instead gets the founders to do it themselves, by suggesting that they should focus on minimizing their legal bill. Nevermind that the issues a great (and independent) lawyer will bring up are 10-20x+ more consequential long-term than the rate the lawyer is charging. By getting founders to myopically think that legal advisory is just empty hand-waiving, and therefore be unwilling to pay for real counsel, investors are able to silence counsel by making it unprofitable for them to speak up. With no one else at the table who actually knows the game, the money then gets free rein to set the rules.

One particularly clever strategy here is worth highlighting: fixed or subscription fees. Most high-end lawyers bill by time, and for good reason. See: Startup Law Pricing: Fixed v. Hourly. The highly contextualized needs of varying businesses are simply too diverse for high-end outside corporate counsel to set broad standardized costs for legal work. High-growth businesses across diverse industries and contexts are far more diversified in their legal needs than the medical needs of patients (fixed fees in healthcare can work), and so there’s just no neat bell curve to enable a viable general flat fee system without setting serious (and dangerous) constraints on what a corporate law firm is able to do.

Investors who push company lawyers to work on fixed/subscription fees know exactly what the end-result of that fee structure’s incentives will be: staying quiet about negotiation points, rushing work, and delegating to cheaper, inexperienced people who just follow standardized checklists/scripts. Market competition sets constraints on how much law firms can charge while remaining competitive, but in an hourly rate structure a law firm still has to at least do the work to get paid. Under a flat or fixed subscription fee, the incentives are reversed. Every extra minute of advisory or customization is lost margin, so cut every corner imaginable, as long as the client can’t see it. And because in the case of early-stage startups the client is often led by an inexperienced founder with no in-house general counsel to vet work product or know what questions outside counsel should be asking, hiding all the shirking/corner-cutting from the client is quite easy.

Firms who simply don’t care about ethics and quality are happy to have you pay them for doing the absolute bare minimum of work, via a flat or subscription fee; and clever investors will happily reward their weak company-side advisory with continued referrals.

The Race to the Bottom.

So what is the predictable end-result of this race to the bottom in startup law, where massive conflicts of interest with the investor community are conveniently overlooked, and lawyers are incentivized to keep their mouths shut and rush work in a standardized assembly-line built to the specifications of unethical investors? In terms of a law firm’s operating structure, it looks like this:

A. The law firm has deep ties to, and referral dependencies with, very influential money players in the startup ecosystem, including VC funds and high-profile accelerators; rendering it completely uncredible to suggest that those investors don’t influence the firm’s advisory. A significant portion of the firm’s business comes from investor referrals, ensuring the firm follows the investors’ preferred protocols.

B. Highly experienced, true Partners and Senior Lawyers are virtually non-existent at the firm, with minimal contact with early-stage startups. It’s only lawyers with many years of specialized experience and vetting who know how to navigate significant high-stakes complexity. Juniors – like lawyers who’ve only practiced for a few years, or paralegals – are only able to safely handle legal work that fits within narrow parameters. Often referred to as “de-skilling” in professional circles, this ensures that when a startup is negotiating against a highly experienced player, the person advising the startup is minimally skilled (and cheaper to the firm). They’ll basically check boxes and fill in forms. Investors will love it. The most highly experienced and talented lawyers (Senior Partners) are the most expensive people on a law firm’s payroll. By eliminating them, a firm can improve margins under a flat or subscription fee model, while torpedoing quality and flexibility. Firms that care most about growing revenue, whatever the impact on quality/ethics, are OK with that.

C. The firm vocally touts the purportedly enormous benefits of standardization, inflexible automation technology, speed, and fixed/subscription fees. By pushing a message that founders should just focus on minimizing legal bills and fixing their costs, the firm hopes they’ll overlook the quality issues with their weak, cookie-cutter counsel. This firm is happy to pretend that it’s in startups’/founders’ best interest to just handle legal work as quickly and automatically as possible. The fixed/subscription fees ensure that the firm is rewarded for cutting corners, delegating work to inexperienced people, and just filling in templates with minimal negotiation or advisory. They’re happy to peddle the templates/form documents, and follow the protocols, that certain aggressive investors (falsely) claim are “standard,” particularly those investors whom the firm depends on for referrals.

D. The firm attracts lawyers who are less interested in actually practicing high-stakes law for the long-term, and the quality accountability that entails, and instead care more about finding future job opportunities with high-growth startups or VC funds. The fact that the firm’s incentive structure totally constrains their ability to actually practice high-level law (and properly advise clients) doesn’t bother them, as long as they get paid and have access to good networking opportunities.

I’ve seen different law firms reach different levels of this race to the bottom. Without a doubt, Silicon Valley culture, with its historical “move fast and break things” approach to raising as much money as possible as quickly as possible in hopes of being a unicorn, has reached some of the most extreme points. Entrepreneurs who fully understand the implications of this race to the bottom, and want to avoid them completely for their business, should read: Checklist for Choosing a Startup Lawyer.

To be crystal clear, I am a big believer in efficiency, and the thoughtful use of well-applied technology to stay “lean” on legal. It’s why I left BigLaw years ago to build out an unapologetically high-end boutique firm, where top-tier lawyers’ rates are hundreds of dollars an hour lower than the conventional firms they left. Their lives are also far healthier because they bill fewer hours. Legal technology is a part of our model, and we are definitely early adopters, but I’m not going to over-hype its significance. The truth is at the top tier of emerging tech/vc law, there’s too much complexity, contextual diversity, and massively high error cost for software to make a huge dent; with deep non-apologies to the software engineers hell-bent on “disrupting” lawyers with an app. We’re talking about highly complex, highly unique companies navigating serious decisions and 8-10+ figure transactions involving very sophisticated players; not a coffee shop or plumbing company.

We’ve grown profitably and sustainably every year since I got here, with 2019 being our best year yet. But I also care deeply about professional ethics, and doing the actual job that inexperienced and vulnerable clients pay me to do. That means cutting out fat from the legal industry, but not muscle. It means delivering highly experienced, specialized strategic counsel capable of flexibly addressing clients’ varying needs as they come up, while leaving out the many other layers of unproductive overhead that traditional firms are often burdened with. See: When Startup Law Firms Don’t Sell Legal Services. Top-tier law can be made leaner and more accessible, but it requires leadership/stakeholders that take professional ethics and quality standards seriously, rather than treating legal work like just another product to recklessly hack and market your way into maximal growth.

We’re in an extremely exciting time for the legal industry. While BigLaw will always serve the largest and most complex deals, I believe the future of the industry (at least the segment that serves non-billion-dollar “happily not a unicorn” clients) is a diversified ecosystem of lean, specialized firms operating far more flexibly and efficiently than traditional mega firms; enabled by technology and operating structures that cut costs without cutting corners. That is the kind of innovation clients, including startups, need and deserve. Blatant flouting of conflicts of interest, and massive dilution of the quality of legal counsel, is not innovation. It’s a race to the bottom, in which the losers (inexperienced teams) are being taken for a ride.