Legal Tech for Startup Lawyers: Deal Closing Software

TL;DR: Deal closing software for collecting and tracking signatures, then compiling closing sets, is a great legal tech category for law firms to streamline administrative tasks on deals, saving clients money and time. Based on my research of the available options in adopting legal tech for our own elite boutique firm (Optimal Counsel), Closing Folders and Litera Transact are the closing tools that other firms should take a look at. Bigger picture, law firms need to think deeply about the proper balance of legal industry values (flexibility, advocacy) v. tech industry values (speed, standardization) as new legal tech hits the market. There are potentially serious negative consequences for companies (clients) if we thoughtlessly let one industry’s values dominate the other.

After publishing How Much Seed Rounds Cost – Lowering Fees and Expenses Safely, which ended up getting way more traction than expected, a number of lawyers from other firms reached out to me politely asking for recommendations as to what tools we use at Optimal for streamlining administrative tasks on deals. I sometimes forget that, even though this blog is targeted toward founders, quite a few lawyers and firms in the industry follow SHL as well. I also occasionally hear from law schools planning their course curricula.

Given that our firm is built around a thoughtful balance of blending lean legal tech with elite lawyers, I can understand other players in the industry looking to us for recommendations. My view has always been that the “optimal” blend of legal and tech ensures that the core values of neither industry get shoved down the throats of clients; who ultimately should be the ones getting better served. Rather, it’s about balancing the positives of both, while counteracting their negative tendencies.

Balancing Legal and Tech Industry Values

Key values of the elite tier of the legal industry are flexibility and trusted advocacy for a client, and (in the case of startups) a client led by executives (founders) often at a substantial informational disadvantage relative to players they are negotiating with. See Negotiation is Relationship Building for a deep-dive on just how much founders and startup teams lose when trusted and experienced legal counsel is pushed out of the picture by misaligned market players who profit from displacing lawyers at the negotiation table.

Legal: Trusted, Flexible Strategic Advocacy with Professional Liability

Having a relationship with a highly experienced and trusted senior lawyer, without ties to your investors, is one of the best “equalizers” for founding teams navigating the fog of an opaque market full of much more experienced players. Unlike regular vendors of services and tools, lawyers have professional ethical obligations to their clients, as skilled fiduciaries advocating for their interests. Paying for counsel is not just paying for a neutral product or service, it’s paying for an experienced advocate reviewing terms and negotiating specifically for your team’s context and priorities.

The downside tendencies of the legal industry are, for some lawyers at least, to “overwork” projects; making unnecessary comments and mountains out of molehills. Reputational competition can put limits on this behavior, but it still occurs in some circles. Clients and Boards should be educated as to what terms are very high impact and high-risk – such as core economic terms, or governance terms influencing the power hierarchy of the business – while, especially on smaller projects, accepting “good enough” for the more marginal terms unlikely to be impactful other than in rare edge-cases.

This is why I’m a big fan of taking an open source” approach to legal templates for early-stage work, reflected in the Seed Round Template Library. Creating a common language framework as starting points can significantly reduce unnecessary negotiation over unimpactful issues, while preserving the flexible and trusted dynamics of each side having advocates looking out for their client’s interests. Independent counsel serve as the flexible “software developers” of this market (contract language is code), with open source templates serving as the transparent and modifiable “github” repository.

This is better for clients and the market than a centralized and proprietary “no code” framework by which self-interested participants, like prominent investors or VC-backed software vendors, impose their inflexible and uneditable “code” (contract terms) onto the entire ecosystem, in part by pretending that something is a universal “standard.” A flexible “open source” approach to early-stage deal terms provides efficiency, without requiring an enormous diversity of market players to fit their businesses and investor theses within a handful of narrow structures.

Tech: Standardization, Scale, and Speed

Unlike the legal industry’s values, which heavily prioritize strategic advocacy and flexibility, the values of the software industry are efficiency, scale, and speed. These are absolutely important values that law firms need to integrate into their cultures to serve clients well, while also being very candid when these values are being exaggerated to dupe inexperienced teams. The negative side of hyper-automation is reduced optionality (inflexibility), and a tendency to gloss over nuances in order to make it easier to sell a software-based service. This downside can sometimes be astroturfed with an over-emphasis on mass-market “data,” when even data compilation and visualization requires significantly narrowing the scope of variables, quietly labeling impactful terms as “standard” or “boilerplate” when they absolutely are not.

A great example of how this plays out is the selection bias of automated tools. They’ll promote “data” suggesting that X or Y is some kind of “standard,” while glossing over the fact that X or Y are the primary options promoted by their tool, creating a self-motivated circularity. You can only choose X or Y if you use the tool, and the tool then uses its self-selected “data” to tell you that X or Y are the “standards.” Given it’s evidently all “standard boilerplate,” you’re told to just pay for their tool and avoid all that negotiation and review mumbo jumbo; even if some of said mumbo jumbo would significantly help a team.

This clever sleight-of-hand – using biased “data” to pretend that important terms are far more standardized than they really are – is looking out for the needs of a company profiting from selling simplistic software that can’t function without hyper-standardization; not the needs of the end-user (the client).

As I’ve said many times before, “don’t ask your lawyers about this” sounds very suspicious. “Let’s save you some legal fees” sounds much more benign, but the end-effect can be the exact same. A huge number of inexperienced teams get duped into signing bad terms, or taking counterproductive actions, but the smoke-and-mirrors strategy of minimizing legal fees (and thus not talking to a trusted independent advisor) provides misaligned actors plausible deniability for their (air quotes) “advice.”

Early-stage private companies building unique products and services, and gunning for 8-10 figure (or more) exits, are not standardized commodities, nor are the contracts they are signing at the foundation of their businesses. This is a total contrast to standardized shares of large public companies, which by their nature are highly liquid, have minimal governance authority, and are a part of diversified portfolios; in other words “low stakes.”

In contrast to liquid public equities, Founders’ and employees’ livelihoods, and often their entire life savings, rely on permanent deal terms tied to high-concentration illiquid assets with significant power over a company’s trajectory. Taking an inflexible, high-speed approach to the super high-stakes terms controlling a startups’ financing, ownership, and governance reflects far more the desires of market players who rely on scale and diversification – like spray-and-pray “dumb money” funds or mass-market software vendors – than on what is actually good and appropriate for each unique company with all or most of its eggs in one basket. This is exactly what happens when “tech values” are allowed to steamroll over legal’s.

Deal Closing Software

There are two broad types of work that law firms do for clients on financings: (i) actual “lawyer work” – assessing terms, educating and advising clients, negotiation, drafting and structuring – and (ii) administrative work like creating signature packets and tracking signatures or assembling closing sets. The former category is very difficult, indeed at times dangerous, to heavily outsource to third-party software because of how high-stakes and permanent it is – flexibility and trusted advocacy really matter here, but the latter category is always great to apply thoughtful technology to.

Closing Folders and Litera Transact are two deal closing tools that all corporate lawyers should review and consider adopting for their practices (one or the other). We’ve used tools like this for years, and I know a lot of ECVC “BigLaw” uses them as well. They use focused web-based interfaces for:

  • Organizing deal checklists and document sets
  • Auto-generating signature pages and packets
  • Auto-issuing e-signature requests through trusted e-signature tools like Docusign
  • Tracking real-time status of signatures, and
  • Compiling closing sets efficiently

What I love most about these tools is their focus and flexibility. If there’s one thing I’ve learned being a legal CTO for a decade, it’s to¬†never trust sprawling “all in one” kinds of tools that show significant feature creep. The tendency for a software company to constantly expand into other features, and even industries, more often reflects a desire for monopolistic empire building than what is actually good for the end-user. They inevitably end up confusing, bloated, and over-priced.

Instead, use tools that do a focused set of tasks extremely well, with a simple interface, and customizability that integrates well into the varying needs of a law firm (the user here). Unlike signature collection features bolted onto other kinds of software, these tools are designed for lawyers and can work on an extremely diverse sets of transactions, including equity or debt financings, and M&A. The fact that no particular deal structure is imposed on them is super important so law firms can apply them to their clients’ varying needs.

Client Data Privacy and Security

While both tools started out as independent startups (Litera acquired Doxly and renamed it Transact, iManage acquired Closing Folders), they’re now owned by trusted legal software companies with robust and transparent policies around client data privacy and security. Lawyers should always be cautious about what software tools might be mining their clients’ data for other ends.

In the most egregious cases I’ve seen software companies market tools to lawyers, use those tools to mine those same lawyers’ client data, and then leverage that data by attempting to displace law firms with high-cost, high-margin legal “products” lacking the flexibility, contextual awareness, and ethical obligations of actual counsel. Sometimes that “data” is being sold directly to your clients’ market counterparties, to improve their negotiating posture.

If the tool is offered to you for “free,” then the payment is in data. What is that data going to be used for? I prefer paying directly for straightforward, well-designed and focused tools. My firm’s (and my clients’) data is not for sale.

Hopefully this is helpful. Good luck.