When Startup Law Firms Don’t Sell Legal Services

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 at 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.”

Startup Cap Tables

TL;DR: Just use Carta, and spend your time on more important questions. Before your seed round closes, Excel is usually OK too.

Years ago we were one of the first early-adopter firms to promote what was then-called eShares, and now Carta, as an option for reducing costs on 409A valuations and also getting scaled cap tables in order. See: 409A as a Service: Cash Cows Get Slaughtered (from early 2014). Today, Carta is a much bigger company, with far more adoption across the country and world. Brief humblebrag about my track record at early-picking legal(ish) tech winners. Doxly also just got acquired by Litera.

Over time, I’ve seen cap software competitors come and go. Sometimes it’s fun listening to the arguments they make for why you should use their whiz-bang-pow tool over something that’s easily becoming a market standard.  Let’s keep this simple: there are very few pieces of technology that lend themselves to fundamental network effects like cap table software. Cap tables are math. Math, unlike subjective and contextual human-oriented things, scales very well with technology and automation. You want the cap table tool that is most recognizable, and most widely adopted, because every single person on your cap table is going to have to interact with it. That’s A LOT of people who might bug you because some random feature isn’t working, or they simply don’t understand the interface.

Less-known options, no matter how incrementally better they may be at this or that little nuance, are just full of enormous headaches. There are a few candidates, most of them concentrated in Silicon Valley, that have tried to use their connections to some well-known accelerator or law firm to corner a distribution channel, but tech nepotism (which seems to be surprisingly common in Silicon Valley and other tech ecosystems) is a poor substitute for facts. When clients ask us what cap table software they should use, we say Carta, and move on. It’s a tool for tracking routine math at scale; not a financing or M&A deal contract with tons of variables to consider. Not that complicated of a decision, and if founders start to make it complicated, that’s often a red flag.

Start with random B-player cap table tool just because your accelerator’s leadership knows a guy who knows a guy (they’re usually guys) at another cap software company, and there’s a 99% chance someone will eventually make you switch to Carta; which will cost you money and waste time relative to having just made the right decision from the start. Buying the nonsense advice of people who in the background are just referring startups to each other in a self-interested tech bro circle often gets founders into huge problems.

All that being said, I’m not going to lose an opportunity to share some love for our tried-and-true old friend, Excel. Yes, it’s old and isn’t in the cloud, and it doesn’t give you that slick “cutting edge” feel that techies love so much, but where Excel has won, and will continue to win, is its simplicity of use and flexibility when the number of parties involved is fairly small; or when you’ve got some really nuanced situation that requires maximal flexibility to model future scenarios and a universal template isn’t going to work fast enough. There is always a fundamental tension between automation and flexibility, and sometimes flexibility really matters; particularly on high-stakes legal issues.

While Carta has started offering their new pre-seed free tool (in Beta) through law firms (of which we are one) – which I know is in response to other bottom-feeder tools offering free versions – Excel isn’t going anywhere. We will continue to use it for pre-seed companies who don’t need outside valuations, and really just have a handful of people for whom a basic excel model is perfectly fine. Excel goes off the rails at scale. At very early-stage, it works, and keeps things super simple. I don’t expect Carta to fully agree with me here, and the incentives there make that disagreement perfectly reasonable. As a power user unencumbered by economic loyalties, I can talk freely about when tools are useful, and when they’re not.

But once you’re closing a seed round and/or need a valuation, and it’s definitively time to get off the Excel train, Carta is the only realistic option for anyone who knows what they’re talking about; and how the dynamics of cap table software require there to be one dominant player.

This is not a sponsored post or paid advertisement for anything. Don’t hate me if I just disappointed your friends offering that random cap table tool you’ve been shilling for. This market has been won.

How Paralegals and Junior Lawyers Can Hurt Startups

TL;DR: In engaging startup law firms, founders need to pay close attention to the differences between inexperienced junior legal professionals, like paralegals and junior attorneys, relative to experienced senior attorneys and partners. In order to fit their high-cost structures into tight startup budgets, some law firms significantly water down their services by forcing startups to regularly engage mostly with inexperienced junior people; many of whom are advising founders on issues they simply lack appropriate experience and judgment for. For high-stakes, complex issues, many of which come up in the early days of a company, this can lead to costly missteps for which startups end up paying a very high price.

Because of their inexperience, first-time founders often get tripped up in engaging their first legal services providers. Very often, they think they just need “a lawyer,” without understanding that, just like doctors, law has dozens of specialties and sub-specialties; and they need lawyers who specialize in emerging technology companies. But even if they narrow down the options of firms they are talking to, founders often lack an understanding of the differences in how various startup law firms/practices are structured in terms of senior professionals v. junior, and how that has a very material impact on the kind of service the company is going to receive.

In What Partners in Startup Law Firms Do, I walked you through what the different titles and levels of expertise at law firms mean. Partners at serious, respected firms have gone through extremely strict vetting and training processes, ensuring that they’re capable of delivering very high-stakes (very high-cost of errors) and flexible legal expertise in complex, multi-variate contexts that fast-moving startups often find themselves in. The process of moving away from Partners toward more junior-level attorneys and paralegals is often referred to as “de-skilling.” It requires adding rigidity and uniformity to work (checklists, templates, standardization, automation), so that less-capable professionals are able to handle limited-scope projects without blowing things up.

De-skilling is an important and very useful part of building up any law firm, because it allows firms to make highly-specialized and trained Partners accessible to companies when they’re needed (which is often, but certainly not all the time), while also handling lower-stakes and simpler work more efficiently and at lower cost.  While every law firm that works with startups offers a level of de-skilled work, it’s clear that firms vary dramatically in how far they go with it.

Some firms keep partners and senior-level attorneys highly involved with a startup from Day 1, while delegating periodically to paralegals and juniors. Other firms go so far as to make paralegals and junior lawyers the main point of contact for early-stage founders. To a first-time founder, the difference between these two approaches can seem subtle, but in terms of what is actually being delivered by the firm (and long-term outcomes), the differences are the opposite of subtle. In fact, we constantly see fast-growing startups make extremely expensive legal mistakes (or poorly thought-out strategic decisions) because the founders were relying on paralegals and juniors – as a “cost saving” mechanism – when those junior professionals were totally out of their league in the advice they were giving.

When paralegals and junior lawyers are made the main legal contacts of a startup, it’s the law firm’s way of saying “You’re little right now, and therefore just a number to us. But if you become something more significant, we’ll allocate our real expertise (senior level) to you.” The problem with this mindset is that many of the decisions made in the very early days of a startup are setting up the foundation and relationships that the company is going to live with throughout its trajectory. The company may be small at the moment, but actions being taken can be extremely high-impact and permanent, and therefore often require experienced judgment. This is especially true if the company doesn’t fit into a cookie-cutter context that can be distilled into a linear, simplified template for a junior to follow.

High-cost firms with weak(er) brands often over-delegate to inexperienced paralegals and juniors.

While a number of variables can play into it, the single largest driver of how much startup law firms rely on paralegals and junior lawyers is the interplay between the firm’s overall cost structure and the budget that startups engaging that firm are willing to accept. I emphasize that it’s the interplay of those two factors, because while some very high-cost law firms could stretch the amount of junior delegation that they throw onto startups, their reputation is sufficiently strong that founders who engage them are willing to pay the high cost of staying closely in contact with partners and seniors.

The very top of the top-tier of high-cost startup “BigLaw” – the top 3-5 firms, what I often refer to as the “Ferrari” tier – often doesn’t have to play games with excess de-skilling. They’re expensive, founders know they’re expensive, and yet they stay very busy anyway because if you’re legitimately on a Unicorn track (>$15MM Series A, clearly gunning for a 10+ figure long-term valuation) you’re a fool for using any other firm outside of that category. Companies on this track usually don’t struggle to pay their legal bills, even if they’ve engaged a Ferrari firm, because the size of their financings can more than accommodate a large legal budget.

It’s often the second tier of the very high-cost firms that I’ve seen start playing games with over-delegation to juniors. These firms also have extremely high operation costs, including all of the pricey infrastructure of the Ferrari tier, but they don’t have the brand credibility to command appropriately sized budgets from their early-stage clients. How do you make the math work in that case? You offer founders lower-priced fixed-fee projects, while putting in the fine print that the founders are going to spend 99% of their time talking to paralegals and juniors incapable of offering effective advice outside of very narrow contexts. Some of these firms will also throw in some half-baked automation software (cue the “machine learning” and “AI” buzz words) to make over-dependance on juniors seem “cutting edge,” when it’s actually a playbook that firms have been using for some time; and smart entrepreneurs know to avoid it.

The true Ferrari tier of Startup BigLaw often doesn’t need to play games with over-delegation to juniors, because founders who engage them know exactly why those firms are so expensive, have accepted it, and are willing to pay for experienced, senior-level attention. It’s more… OK let’s stick with the car analogy, the “Jaguar” tier of BigLaw (high-cost, but not the top of the top tier) that most often follows the junior-driven playbook. Their operating costs are the same as (or very close to) the Ferrari firms, but they have to offer discounts and lower budgets to attract startup clients (weaker brand); necessitating a watering-down of the actual offering to make the math work. What you end up with is still far from cheap, but requires you to stay within a very rigid, narrowly defined path for everything to not fall completely off the rails.

The point here isn’t to come down hard in saying that one approach or the other is right for every startup, but to simply ensure founders are aware of it, and use their judgment rather than being duped by clever marketing. Companies on what could truly be called “cookie cutter” trajectories can be OK having paralegals and inexperienced junior lawyers be their main legal contacts via what amounts to a “LegalZoom with a little extra” type of legal service offering. But experience has shown me that many entrepreneurs over-estimate how much of their legal work is (air quotes) “standard,” which can result in a blow-up once the legal technical debt comes due.

For negotiation-oriented issues, like structuring the subtleties of financings or serious Board-level discussions, there may also be ulterior motives behind investors pushing their portfolio companies to lean on inexperienced advisors (law firms that push startups to use junior people), with fabricated “standards” as an excuse. If it’s all just templates and standards, then what’s the harm in having your investors pick your law firm, right? Watch incentives and conflicts of interest. See: Negotiation is Relationship Building and When VCs “own” your startup’s lawyers.

When you, as a first-time entrepreneur, don’t know what you don’t know about high-stakes legal and financing issues, and you’re interacting with extremely seasoned and smart (but misaligned) business players, the last thing you want is to be relying on advisors who are only marginally more experienced than you are; or worse, are also “owned” by the money across the table.

High-end Boutique Law Firms are leaner and can offer lower costs, without over-reliance on inexperienced juniors.

Excess amounts of de-skilling and delegation to paralegals/juniors is not the only way that the legal market has attempted to lower legal costs for startups. An alternative, which we are a part of, is the emergence of high-end boutique law firms. These firms can offer regular access to true Partners and Senior Lawyers, but at rates equivalent to what the Ferrari tier charges for junior lawyers (hundreds less per hour); because they’ve cut out a lot of the overhead infrastructure that tends to inflate the cost of BigLaw. If your clients are Apple, Uber, and companies on that track (Ferrari tier of BigLaw), the way you build and market your firm will by necessity look very different from firms who deliberately target clients that, while serious and building important products/services, rarely make it onto the headlines of the NYT or WSJ (boutique firms).

This “lower overhead” (lean) boutique approach to law is not without its trade-offs, and I make that clear in my writings on the emerging boutique ecosystem. Every firm structure ultimately still has to follow math, and there simply is no magical wand that you can waive to deliver (again with the car analogies) Ferrari performance and resources at Acura/BMW prices. The very highest-end law firms that cater to marquee billion-dollar companies (and aspiring Unicorns) are extraordinarily expensive to grow and run, and there are very smart people running them who are well aware of how to safely trim costs within the constraints of what it takes to serve their clients. Boutiques offer a fundamentally different cost structure, because they are designed for a fundamentally different kind of client that doesn’t need a lot of the resources of the Ferrari class.

And please spare me the vaporware marketing suggesting that some new whiz-bang-pow piece of automation technology fundamentally changes the math of law firm economics. At the tier of corporate legal work that we are discussing (scaled, high-complexity and variability, high cost of errors, contextualized subjectivity), the amount of work even within the realm of possibility of being automated away with AI and data is a microscopic portion of what serious firms do. With apologies to the soylent-sipping lawyer haters out there (I see you, Silicon Valley uber-engineers), Siri isn’t going to negotiate your financings, or navigate your corporate governance, any time soon. We love legal tech and have adopted a lot of useful new tools, some of which are still in private beta; but nothing in the next 5-10 year horizon is going to fundamentally re-make law firms. Not at this level of complexity.

Properly structured high-end boutique law firms can and do offer significantly lower costs than BigLaw, without denying startups regular access to Partner-level, flexible strategic expertise. But the savings come from removing costs and resources that are required only if you are trying to serve the very highest end of the tech market; and boutiques don’t.

I tell founders all the time, “If you legitimately think an IPO or billion dollar valuation is on your visible horizon, please hang up and call the Ferrari tier of BigLaw.” We don’t do IPOs, and we’re not going to do your 10-figure cross-border merger involving 5,000 employees, 500 stockholders, and four tax jurisdictions. Hard pass.

At E/N, our Partners are perfectly happy letting the Ferrari firms compete for and serve Ferrari clients, while we work with a segment of the tech ecosystem that has been badly underserved.  Our clients tend to exit between $50MM and $250-ish MM, and obviously at lower sizes if it’s an earlier-than-expected sale. Their legal needs and financings are sufficiently large and complex to pay rates high enough to support serious lawyers and right-sized infrastructure for scalability, but the founders also have an instinctive understanding that their trajectory isn’t going to be anything you’d call “cookie cutter,” nor are they aspiring to be a Unicorn.

High-end boutique startup law firms thus offer a balanced compromise and useful value proposition for founders building companies that clearly need credible, highly-trained and specialized senior-level expertise (without reckless over-reliance on paralegals and juniors, or half-baked automation software), but for whom the Ferrari tier of the tech legal market is clearly overkill. Boutiques cannot and do not scale like the very top-tier of BigLaw, but the fact is that an important segment of the tech ecosystem doesn’t need them to.

Founders exploring the legal market should, at a minimum, ensure that they understand not just the varying cost structures of law firms, but also the varying levels of expertise/service those firms are offering within their cost structures. Two firms might look like apples to apples on the surface, but what your budget actually gets you ends up being wildly different. Firms promising low fees in exchange for inexperienced junior professionals (who can’t navigate significant complexity/flexibility safely, and offer poorly-fitted rigid advice) are selling something that – to experienced players who aren’t easily fooled – looks far less like efficiency, and far more like a time bomb.

What Partners in Startup Law Firms Do

TL;DR: True “Partners” in serious law firms deliver high-impact, high-complexity legal advisory safely, because of their years of experience and having gone through deep institutional vetting processes with very high standards. Apart from Partners, firms often have a roster of non-partners who can handle more routine and “de-skilled” work efficiently without the higher rates of Partners. But inexperienced entrepreneurs run into very expensive problems when they think that, just because some of their legal needs can be done more cheaply by de-skilled legal labor, they don’t need Partners at all.

Related Reading: Startup Lawyers – Explained 

First-time founders are often mystified by the organizational structure of law firms, because of how different it is from a product-oriented business. They often think they simply need “a lawyer,” without digging deeper into the important differences among lawyers.

The first thing to understand is lawyer specialization. See Why Startups Need Specialist Lawyers. While a typical “startup lawyer” is (or should be) in fact a corporate/securities lawyer with a heavy specialization in “emerging companies” work, there are many other kinds of lawyers that scaling startups eventually need: employment, tax, commercial/tech transactions, patent (sometimes), data privacy, etc.

Once you get past understanding the specialty of the particular lawyer, you start getting into differences among lawyers within a specialty. If you engage a typical law firm, either BigLaw or a decent sized boutique (like E/N), you’ll see titles like Junior Associate (in our firm juniors are called Fellows), Senior Associate, Counsel, and Partner. Those titles are very important in terms of signaling the skillset that a particular lawyer brings to the table.

Very broadly speaking, the title “Partner” refers to the most senior (in expertise) people within a law firm. In a law firm that recruits top-tier legal talent, just being hired by the firm requires being in the top 5-10% of the overall talent pool. After the initial “filter” of getting hired, a lawyer has to have at least 7-9 yrs of experience within a specialty before they’re even eligible to become a Partner. Achieving that level of experience is by no means an automatic ticket. A very small % of lawyers in the market are eligible to even be hired by a top-tier firm, and then an even smaller % of those lawyers will make Partner. On top of needing to have done the job for X number of years, serious law firms have strict criteria for vetting the work product and judgment that a lawyer has produced, from a quality, complexity, and client satisfaction standpoint, in order to determine whether they are, in a sense, worthy of the Partner title.

You can think of serious law firms as universities for specialized vetting and practical training of lawyers, and the Partner title as a PhD.  That obviously means that the legitimacy of the law firm’s brand matters wildly for whether the term Partner even means anything. Just like a PhD from Harvard or Stanford, or any institution highly regarded within a particular field, says a lot more than one from a school no one has ever heard of, anyone with minimal credentials can hang out a shingle and call themselves a “Partner” of their firm; in which case the title is meaningless.

Within the legal field, you’ll often see a single lawyer get preciously close to being fired by Law Firm A because of how low quality that lawyer’s work product is (not even meeting Firm A’s minimum standards), and yet end up a “Partner” at random Law Firm B that dishes titles out like candy, because their brand lacks real value. Law firms are not created equal. Not even close.

Why is all of this vetting even necessary? Specialization, even sub-specialization, and heavy quality filtering processes are unusual for many fields and industries. The answer relates to issues I’ve discussed in Legal Technical Debt. Unlike software and other product-oriented industries, mistakes in law, particularly high-stakes law, are often extremely expensive to fix, if they are even fixable at all. Not infrequently, they’re permanent. Once a contract is signed, or an action with potential legal liability is taken, there’s no v1.2 over-the-air fix that can be issued unilaterally if bugs (errors) arise. Contracts would be pointless if you could tweak important terms without the other side’s consent.

This is why applying software industry thinking like “move fast and break things” can be spectacularly disastrous when approaching legal issues, because that thinking only works when you can take an iterative approach to low-stakes bugs. To make matters even worse and harder, legal mistakes are rarely discovered immediately after they are committed. They often sit in the background for years until the full reality comes out, with “interest” having compounded on the “debt.” The “complexity” that top-tier firms are designed to safely manage isn’t something that they themselves fabricate out of thin air. As companies grow, the number of relevant (extremely smart) parties with competing/conflicting high-stakes interests grows, as do the number of legal issues they touch; and many of those issues weave into each other by necessity such that a move on one triggers cascading, unintuitive effects on others. The complexity (and cost of errors) is inherent and unavoidable, like a highly contextualized and fragmented code base of contracts, relationships, regulations, and complex formulas, but where the cost of a “bug” is 50x.

So within top-tier law firms with reputable brands and vetting processes, Partners represent the highest level of flexible expertise, quality control, and experienced judgment that a particular firm is able to offer for managing very high-stakes, very complex and strategic issues safely without producing expensive errors whose costs are borne by clients. And ensuring you have direct access to that expertise is important for your most complex, high-stakes legal advisory.  But that being said, not everything you need from a law firm requires such a high level of expertise; and that’s why law firms have lower-cost, well-trained people with other titles and levels of vetting, like associates and paralegals.

As you move from Partners to lower-level professionals, the process is often referred to in some circles as de-skilling. It basically means that the law firm as an institution has put in place the appropriate quality control mechanisms to allow people with less fully-vetted and more narrow skillsets to do a limited segment of work that is appropriate for their abilities, while still producing an end-product meeting the firm’s quality standards. Highly-detailed checklists, template forms, and software-supported systems of institutional knowledge are common ways that law firms de-skill legal work (make it easier to do by introducing training wheels and boundaries) and push it down to people who charge less but are also more available than Partners.

Partners, for example, don’t need to issue your random option grants. Non-lawyers with appropriate oversight can do that. A Partner also doesn’t need to review your random NDA.  But a high-stakes term sheet, M&A deal, or key hire? You don’t want a non-partner leading that, because it’s too high-impact and the right output depends too much on highly contextualized, subjective, and complex nuances (human judgment) as opposed to simplified rules that a lower-level professional can follow. The typical way a startup engages a law firm is to view one or two Partners as the quarterbacks and main contacts of the legal team, who can then delegate lower-level, de-skilled work to cheaper but still well-monitored professionals. This puts the most experienced and trusted legal advisors in charge of the highest leverage strategic issues, while integrating them with cheaper professionals who can also get more routine work done.

The spectrum of Partners for high-stakes, high-complexity work through de-skilled professionals like associates and paralegals helps explain a lot about the different kinds of legal service providers you’ll encounter in the market.

Some firms (often small niche boutiques) are all Partners. Not a single lower-level non-partner on the roster. That can make sense if the work being done is all extremely complex and bespoke, as might be the case in very cutting edge fields. But in most fields (including corporate/securities law) a Partner-only firm will just mean you’re overpaying for work that could be done safely by someone cheaper, and also probably be done faster because larger rosters of professionals with different skillsets prevent bottlenecks by allowing work to be triaged (like a hospital). See: When a Startup Lawyer Can’t Scale for a deep-dive into what happens when startups engage solo lawyers or Partners who don’t have real infrastructure for scalability and full service.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are so-called law firms that don’t have any true Partners, meaning no one whose fully led a client base into high-stakes 9 or 10-figure highly-complex transactions, and gone through the vetting process of already reputable firms and achieved the Partner title in a meaningful sense. Firms full of non-partners will heavily gravitate toward de-skilled work, which often means large amounts of standardization and therefore inflexibility. Their less-experienced lawyers and professionals aren’t capable of handling high levels of complexity safely, so they’ll necessarily attempt to standardize their offerings to make them easier and safer to deliver; with the value proposition being that they can also be cheaper, because they have no expensive Partners to pay.

This heavily de-skilled and standardized approach to legal can work for a certain kind of client needing certain kinds of lower-stakes work, but it will run into problems if they try to handle everything a growing client needs, including higher complexity, higher-stakes transactions that simply cannot be simplified or distilled into an algorithm or checklist for lower-level professionals to manage. While some non-partner firms still refer to themselves as law firms, others instead refer to themselves as “alternative legal services providers.” Ultimately what they call themselves matters less than the fact that their value proposition to clients is very different from a law firm with true Partners.

A real top-tier law firm offers a blend of high-complexity, high-stakes Partner-led flexible legal judgment with more routinized de-skilled work, while an alternative legal provider leans heavily on de-skilled, more routine low-stakes work that “tops out” on how much flexibility and complexity in can handle. Serious firms are designed like Partner-centric creative studios at the top of their hierarchy, because their core value proposition is extremely well-trained and specialized intellectual horsepower capable of addressing hundreds/thousands of unique and very high-impact circumstances effectively. Highly-vetted (and compensated) Partners are the only “full stack” experts capable of ensuring quality control of that kind of highly variable and complex service with extremely high error costs. Remove those Partners, and the whole thing collapses into a nuclear disaster of errors and poor judgment.

Alternative legal providers are, instead, structured more like factories or product-oriented companies, because their offering is by necessity limited and simplified through routinization and inflexibility. Eliminate Partners (with their unique and rare, and therefore expensive, skillset) from your cost structure, and you’ll certainly cut costs, but you’ve also set a hard ceiling on how much flexibility and complexity your operation can now handle without a blow-up. The core “service” of an alternative provider isn’t actually experienced, flexible human judgment, but rigid institutional processes with less-skilled (cheaper) people adding a light layer of variability.

It’s much riskier for a startup led by inexperienced entrepreneurs to engage a non-partner alternative legal provider (instead of a law firm) than it would be for, say, a large company with an in-house counsel. Why? Remember, true Partners serve as the highest-level quality control and strategic quarterbacks of a legal team. If you’re a large company with highly experienced in-house counsel, they (the in-house lawyer) can serve as your Partner of sorts; developing a unique strategy appropriate for the context, monitoring for errors, and coordinating different appropriately trained people to execute on the strategy. But early-stage startups don’t have highly experienced (and highly paid) in-house lawyers. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases even millions, a year.

Because inexperienced entrepreneurs have no idea how to appropriately vet and triage high-stakes legal work, or how to develop a contextualized and flexible legal strategy, having them engage legal service providers full of nothing but non-partners capable of only managing a limited scope of “standardized” work starts off a very long-term game of legal russian roulette. Sure, your option grants will probably be done right, as will an NDA review. But eventually (pretty quickly, usually) a higher-stakes, higher-complexity situation arises, and cookie-cutter de-skilled offerings just won’t work. No serious company follows a fully “standard” (whatever that means) growth trajectory.

Real Partners are expensive, and you often need them only for your highest-stakes issues where a wrong decision can have million or even billion-dollar implications, but when you need them, you really need them.  These kinds of situations arise often and unpredictably in the early days of a fragile, chaotic startup where the overall trajectory of the entire business is still being sorted out, founders are negotiating with market players 100x as experienced as they are, and a single decision can produce permanent consequences that you’ll have to live with for years.

So when entrepreneurs are diligencing firms to work with, they need to be thinking about a number of variables:

  • Does the firm have the right specialty of work I’m looking for, and access to other specialties I might need?
  • Does this firm have true Partners (with credible expertise and vetted backgrounds) that I can trust to handle non-routine and very high-stakes, high-complexity matters safely?
  • But do they also have the appropriate institutional infrastructure of lower-level professionals to get less high-stakes but still important work done on time and correctly (de-skilled work)?

Partners are necessary for high-stakes, high-complexity work that can’t fit within a template framework. Non-partners (and infrastructure) are necessary for speed and efficiency on day-to-day needs that are more predictable. When the “buyer” of legal services is an experienced in-house general counsel, they can often do without Partners. That’s why a lot of the most successful alternative legal service providers (who don’t have Partners) entering the market are targeting large companies with in-house counsel who can safely bypass Partners for specific segments of more routine, lower-stakes work, while correctly identifying higher-impact issues and applying Partner-level expertise to them.

But startups led by entrepreneurs engaging directly with a firm should understand that because no one on their internal roster has the expertise to credibly handle and triage the most high-impact, high-complexity legal issues that they’ll inevitably run into as they scale, Partners are essential, including for interacting with highly experienced and misaligned players on the other side of the negotiation table (like investors) who have their own Partners advising them. Focusing too much on routine, low-stakes things like how quickly or cheaply a firm can check off some boxes or fill in a template misses the much bigger picture of why the number of law firms taken seriously by the top players in the industry is much smaller than the total number of firms in the market.

People building a coffee shop or other small business (with very limited legal needs) might engage LegalZoom, or a productized de-skilled legal offering that looks like LegalZoom with paralegals and moderately-skilled attorneys added on top to add a narrow band of customization. And large companies with experienced in-house counsel will regularly engage alternative providers for narrow segments of lower-stakes work that doesn’t require Partner attention. But early-stage executives building highly complex enterprises facing extremely high-impact strategic legal decisions know that the issues they’re touching are much higher-stakes, and focus on the Partners of the firms they engage for that reason.

Some alternative legal providers are very open about their narrow capabilities, and how they’re very different from an actual law firm. They are serving a legitimate, unmet need by heavily productizing a narrow segment of high-volume, lower-margin work. Clerky is a great example of a reliable, productized startup legal offering that doesn’t pretend to replace law firms, and is open in its marketing about what it is and what it’s not; a tool for handling a very limited scope of work for very early-stage startups who can’t yet afford quality counsel, or have counsel but need extremely simple, standardized tasks done cheaply but safely (with software automation) because of their small budget.

But sometimes alternative providers like to mask their limitations, and market themselves as “full service” firms; and Partners at actual law firms then grab some popcorn and wait for the fireworks. While scaled enterprises with experienced in-house counsel are the most appropriate market for de-skilled legal “products,” those “buyers” are also far more scrutinizing of legal services because they have the experience and judgment to separate fact from fiction. Inexperienced entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know about legal, which makes them easier targets for bad actors peddling X or Y legal product as a comprehensive solution, when they actually carry enormous gaps and limitations that will only become obvious when it’s too late to fix them. First-time founders are also prime targets for misaligned but clever market players (investors, commercial partners, acquirers) across the table who might want a young, inexperienced startup to be disarmed with less capable advisors; allowing that player to then take advantage of the uneven playing field.

De-skilled legal labor enabled by technology and well-designed processes absolutely has its place in the market – and well-run firms take advantage of it; but it’s as a supplement to the high-stakes, high-complexity work that the smartest industry players trust top-tier firms and Partners to do, not as a replacement. Anyone suggesting otherwise is marketing a highly-polished time bomb as a solution. 

Ask a law firm the right questions about the scalability and credibility of their expertise, including their Partners, or the reality check delivered to you when the legal “technical debt” comes due will be ice cold.

The Problem with Short Startup Term Sheets

TL;DR: Shorter term sheets, which fail to spell out material issues and punt them to later in a financing, reflect the “move fast and get back to work” narrative pushed by repeat players in startup ecosystems, who benefit from hyper-standardization and rapid closings. First-time entrepreneurs and early employees are better served by more detailed term sheets that ensure alignment before the parties are locked into the deal.

Related reading:

In my experience, there are two “meta-narratives” floating around startup ecosystems regarding how to approach “legal” for startups.

The first, most often pushed by repeat “portfolio” player investors, and advisors aligned with their interests, is that hyper-standardization and speed should be top priorities. Don’t waste time on minutiae, which just “wastes” money on legal fees. Use fast-moving templates to sign a so-called “standard” deal.  Silicon Valley has, by far, adopted this mindset the furthest; facilitated in part by the “unicorn or bust” approach to company building that its historically selected for.

An alternative narrative, which you hear less often (publicly) because it favors “one shot” players with less influence, is that there is a fundamental misalignment of interests between those one shot players (founders/employees, common stockholders) and the repeat players (investors, preferred stockholders), as well as a significant imbalance of experience between the two camps. Templates publicized by repeat players as “standard” are therefore suspect, and arguments that it’s *so important* to close on them fast should cause even more caution.

Readers of SHL know where I stand on the issue (in the latter camp).  Having templates as starting points, and utilizing technology to cut out fat (and not muscle), are all good things; to a point. Beyond that point, it becomes increasingly clear that certain investors, who are diversified, wealthier, and have downside protection, use the “save some legal fees” argument to cleverly convince common stockholders to not ask hard questions, and not think about whether modifications are warranted for their *specific* company. Hyper-standardization is great for a diversified portfolio designed for “power law” returns. It can be terrible for someone whose entire net worth is locked into a single company.

Among lawyers, where they stand on this divide often depends (unsurprisingly) on where their loyalties lie. See: When VCs “Own” Your Startup’s LawyersKnowing that first-time founders and their early employees often have zero deal experience, and that signing a term sheet gets them “pregnant” with a “no shop” and growing legal fees, it’s heavily in the interest of VCs to get founders to sign a term sheet as fast as possible. That’s why lawyers who are “owned” by those repeat players are the quickest to accept this or that “standard” language, avoid rocking the boat with modifications, and insist that it’s best for the startup to sign fast; heaven forbid a day or two of comments would cause the deal to “fall through.”

I was reminded of this fact recently when Y Combinator published their “Standard and Clean” Series A Term Sheet.  It’s not a terrible term sheet sheet by any means, though it contains some control-oriented language that is problematic for a number of reasons and hardly “standard and clean.” But what’s the most striking about it is how short it is, and therefore how many material issues it fails to address. And of course YC even states in their article the classic repeat player narrative: “close fast and get back to work.”  The suggestion is that by “simplifying” things, they’ve done you a favor.

Speaking from the perspective of common stockholders, and particularly first-time entrepreneurs who don’t consider their company merely “standard,” short term sheets are a terrible idea. I know from working on dozens of VC deals (including with YC companies) and having visibility into hundreds that founders pay the most attention to term sheets, and then once signed more often “get back to work” and expect lawyers to do their thing. It’s at the term sheet level therefore that you have the most opportunity to ensure alignment of expectations between common stock and preferred, and to “equalize” the experience inequality between the two groups. It’s also before signing, before a “no shop” is in place, and before the startup has started racking up a material legal bill, that there is the most balance and flexibility to get aligned on all material terms, or to walk away if it’s really necessary.

A short term sheet simply punts discussions about everything excluded from that term sheet to the definitive docs, which increases the leverage of the investors, and reduces the leverage of the executive team. Their lawyers will say this or that is “standard.” Your lawyers, if they care enough to actually counsel the company, will have a different perspective on what’s “standard.”  This is why longer term sheets that cover all of the most material issues in VC deal docs, not just a portion of them, serve the interests of the common stock. It’s the best way to avoid a bait and switch.

To make matters even worse for the common stock, it’s become fashionable in some parts of startup ecosystems to suggest that all VCs deals should be closed on a fixed legal fee; as opposed to by time.  Putting aside what the right legal cost of a deal should be, whether it’s billed by time or fixed, the fact is that fixed fees incentivize law firms to rush work and under-advise clients. Simply saying “this is standard” is a fantastic way to get a founder team – who usually have no idea what market norms, or long-term consequences, are – to accept whatever you tell them, and maximize your fixed fee margins. Lawyers working on a fixed fee make more money by simply going with your investors’ perspectives on what’s “standard” and “closing fast so you can get back to work.” For more on this topic, see: Startup Law Pricing: Fixed v. Hourly. 

When the “client” is a general counsel who can clearly detect when lawyers are shirking, the incentives to under-advise aren’t as dangerous. But when the client is a set of inexperienced entrepreneurs who are looking to their counsel for high-stakes strategic guidance, the danger is there and very real; especially if company counsel has dependencies on the money across the table (conflicts of interest). For high-stakes economics and power provisions that will be permanently in place for a long time, the fact that investors are often the ones most keen on getting your lawyers to work on a fixed fee, and also seem to have strong opinions on what specific lawyers you’re using, should raise a few alarm bells for smart founders who understand basic incentives and economics. If your VCs have convinced you to use their preferred lawyers, and to use them on a fixed fee, that fixed fee is – long term – likely to help them far more than it helped you.

Much of the repeat player community in startup ecosystems has weaponized accusations of “over-billing” and “deal killing,” together with obviously biased “standards,” as a clever way – under the guise of “saving fees” – to get common stockholders to muzzle their lawyers; because those lawyers are often the only other people at the table with the experience to see what the repeat players are really doing.  

The best “3D Chess” players in the startup game are masters at creating a public persona of startup / founder “friendliness” – reinforced by market participants dependent on their “pipeline” and therefore eager to amplify the image – while maneuvering subtly in the background to get what they want. You’ll never hear “sign this short template fast, because it makes managing my portfolio easier, and reduces your leverage.” The message will be: “I found a great way to save you some fees.”

I fully expect, and have experienced, the stale, predictable response from the “unicorn or bust” “move fast and get back to work” crowd to be that, as a Partner of a high-end boutique law firm, of course I’m going to argue for more legal work instead of mindlessly signing templates. Software wants to “eat my job” and I’m just afraid. Okay, soylent sippers. If you really have internalized a “billion or bust” approach to building a company, then I can see why the “whatever” approach to legal terms can be optimal. If you’re on a rocket ship, your investors will let you do whatever you want regardless of what the docs say; and if you crash, they don’t matter either. But a lot of entrepreneurs don’t have that binary of an approach to building their companies.

Truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, the portion of a serious law firm’s revenue attributed to drafting VC deal docs is small. Very small. You could drive those fees to zero – and I know a lot of commentators who simply (obviously) hate lawyers would love that – and no one’s job would be “eaten” other than perhaps a paralegal’s.  It’s before a deal and after, on non-routine work, and on serious board-level issues where the above-mentioned misalignment between “one shot” and repeat players becomes abundantly clear, that real lawyers separate themselves from template fillers and box checkers. The clients who engage us know that, and it’s why we have the levels of client satisfaction that we do.  We don’t “kill deals,” because it’s not in the company’s interest for us to do so. But we also don’t let veiled threats or criticisms from misaligned players get in the way of providing real, value-add counsel when it’s warranted.

So while all the people pushing more templates, more standardization, more “move fast and get back to work” think that all Tech/VC law firms are terrified of losing their jobs, many of us are actually grateful that someone out there is filtering our client bases and pipelines for us, for free.