Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not Big Firm “Lock In”

TL;DR Nutshell: In the course of your startup’s life, you’ll need perhaps a dozen or more different kinds of specialist lawyers.  There is very little about the practice of law today that requires you to source all of those lawyers from one firm when the “right” lawyer (experience, rate, culture) may be a solo, at a boutique, or at another large firm.  Yet traditional law firms continue to push the “one firm for everything” full service model because it allows them to mark up specialist lawyers whom startups could otherwise hire for several hundreds of dollars less per hour.

Background Reading:

Most people have a good understanding of the importance of specialist doctors; that if you have a serious skin issue, you call a dermatologist, but if you have a serious heart issue, you call a cardiologist.  Biology is far too complex, and the stakes are simply too high, to rely on a single generalist who, while valuable at coordinating specialists and keeping an eye on the forest relative to the trees, couldn’t possibly be smart enough to cover every specialty without repeatedly committing malpractice.

Generalists v. Specialists

New founders typically have less of an understanding of how this generalist v. specialist divide also exists for lawyers.  If you’re a 3-person coffee shop that isn’t playing on a national scale, it may be OK to rely on a single general lawyer to incorporate you, file your trademark, and maybe handle your lease.  But if you’re a scaling startup seeking VC funding and making decisions on Day 1 that will influence your company’s prospects when it hits $25MM in revenue, you need solid specialist lawyers.

The category of “startup lawyer” is itself a specialty. It means a corporate lawyer who (you hope) specializes in working with early-stage technology companies and has closed so many angel and VC deals that she doesn’t need to be “educated” when your investors show up with a term sheet.  Startup lawyers also play the role of a generalist, sourcing and quarterbacking specialists as needs come up for their clients.

Here are just a few examples of specialist lawyers that startups often require as they grow:

  • Patent Prosecution – which itself contains dozens of sub-specialties depending on the type of science/technology. You don’t hire a patent lawyer with a background in organic chemistry to draft your IoT hardware patent.
  • Patent Litigation
  • Commercial Litigation
  • Trademarks
  • Tax – U.S., and Country-Specific
  • Tech Transactions – (Licensing, Reseller Agreements, OEM, Distribution Agreements, etc.) – subspecialties include hardware focus, SaaS focus, etc.
  • Data Security / Privacy – subspecialties include financial data privacy, HIPAA, etc.
  • Open Source IP
  • International Trade / Export Compliance
  • Employment / Labor Law – federal and state-specific
  • Employee Benefits and Compensation
  • DE Corporate Governance
  • Environmental
  • Real Estate
  • Securities Regulation
  • Immigration
  • Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A)

One of the main points that I’ve driven home in many SHL posts, and around which E/N’s tech practice has been built, is that no single law firm can or should attempt to employ all, or even most, of the specialist lawyers that a technology company needs over its life cycle. Apple is massive and employs dozens or hundreds of different types of engineers and executives. Why? Because without doing so it could never produce the iPhone 6. Take any specific type of developer or engineer out of Apple and have her work alone or at a much smaller entity, and she couldn’t possibly produce as much value as she can being integrated at Apple.

This is just not how law practice works. Lawyers in various specialties absolutely do collaborate to ensure clients are well-represented and that work performed by various people doesn’t conflict, but with today’s SaaS/collaboration tools (which weren’t available a few years ago), that collaboration occurs just as easily (and depending on the firm, more easily) between focused, specialized firms as it does under the same massive, bureaucratic structure.  

I can call a top trademark lawyer at a 5-person boutique or a similar lawyer at a 1000-lawyer firm, and their capacity to handle 99.9% of my client’s trademark needs is virtually the same, though the boutique lawyer will be $250+/hr less (yet make the same or more per hour), and generally give my client more attention. The core value produced by large law firms is concentrated in individual professionals who, unlike people working at integrated companies like Apple, hardly become less valuable when you change their address and sig block. 

The Driver of Big Firm “Lock In”

So why don’t large firms simply break up, allowing their lawyers to drop their rates and stop wasting clients’ money? Aside from fear and inertia, there is one very serious “glue” keeping BigLaw together: origination credit.  In law firm economics, lawyers make money not only from the work they do, but also from a % (their origination credit) of the work done by other lawyers in their firm for clients they source.  If I’m a startup lawyer at a large firm and can push my client to use my firm’s trademark lawyers, patent lawyers, litigators, etc. etc., I get a cut of all those fees. I don’t get a cut if I send them to another firm with better lawyers, lower rates, and more appropriate skills. 

Many founders are shocked to find out that, for the vast majority of lawyers in BigLaw, maybe 20-25% of the amount they bill ends up in the pockets of the lawyers doing the work. You’re billed $650/hr for a patent lawyer, but maybe $175 gets to that lawyer.  Most of the rest is: (a) bloat (see above), and (b) markup to feed the origination pyramid.  

Putting aside how much this screws clients (founders), you cannot possibly understand how badly specialist lawyers would love to be able to bill clients $300/hr less, without taking a cut in their compensation. But many of them can’t, because leaving their large firms means being cut off from the deal-flow. The only specialists who are able and willing to break free are the ones with enough client loyalty (and chutzpah) that they can take clients with them. And those are the specialists E/N likes to work with.

Boutique Corporate Lawyers and the Specialist Ecosystem

When a startup works with a startup lawyer in a large firm and needs a specialist lawyer, 99% of the time the startup lawyer will push work to his own firm’s specialists. Never mind that the specialist he chooses may be over-kill, or over-priced, or simply a poor fit. That’s his firm’s specialist, and the firm expects him to “cross-sell” into other specialties. He wants his cut.

When a startups works with an E/N startup lawyer and needs a specialist lawyer, we assess the various options in our network (or elsewhere) and let the client choose what he/she thinks is the best fit. For example, we could go with a solid solo lawyer billing in the $200s who’s excellent for straight-forward work.  If it’s a more serious issue we could go with the slightly more expensive boutique w/ high-end specialists in the $300s or low $400s.  Or if it’s a bet-the-company issue we could go with one of the top specialists in her field who formed her own firm recently and bills at $500/hr (she was $800 at her former firm).

Granted, sometimes the absolute right lawyer is, unfortunately, still in BigLaw, and we work with her, but every year that becomes a rarer occurrence as the specialist ecosystem grows.  And I always favor lawyers outside of BigLaw because of the risks they’ve taken, the better attention they give to clients, and the fact that they are building a legal market that is less soul-sucking for the country’s top legal talent.

The point is that we leverage our vetted network of specialists to ensure clients get “full service” legal counsel, without misaligned economic incentives muddying the relationship. Clients aren’t “locked in” to any particular set of specialist lawyers, so we’re free to choose from a much broader pool. While this represents a loss in origination credit for our lawyers, it also significantly enhances their value proposition to clients, helping overall with business development.  Short-term loss, long-term gain.

Founders should be mindful of the incentives behind how their startup lawyers source specialists, because they can and will have an impact on the bottom line, and could even result in major screwups from a mismatch between what the startup actually needed and the specialist who was put on the job.  While the overall market is evolving to favor flexibility, transparency, and efficiency, a lot of traditional firms still tout b.s. about the importance of “big firm resources.” Smart founders know that “big firm resources” is, for the most part, just code for “we’re going to keep milking clients with overpriced specialists until the music stops.”

Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

“We received a term sheet from a competing VC syndicate, and if I go to our current lawyers, our existing investors will find out about it before I want them to.  Our law firm does a lot of work for our VCs.”

“Our VCs told us that if we used their preferred law firm, they’d close more quickly and even save us money by not hiring their own lawyers. But if we went with another firm, there ‘could be delays.'” 

“I went to my Board to disclose this highly confidential issue that only our lawyers and I knew about, and I realized that our VCs were already aware of it. No one but our lawyers could’ve disclosed it.”

“The lawyers that our investors connected us to said that the valuation in our term sheet was about market. It was only after closing that I found out we got totally hosed.”

The above are quotes or paraphrases of statements that we, as a firm, have heard directly from founders/executives as they explain their reasons for changing law firms. The unifying theme should be obvious, and it relates to the broader issue of why so many founders have such dim views of startup lawyers in general. In short, by playing fast and loose with conflicts of interest in the pursuit of maximizing short-term revenue, many startup lawyers and law firms have squandered their most valuable currency: trust.

Related Reading: How Founders Lose Control of Their Startups

What is Counsel?

No one who reads SHL or interacts with E/N’s tech practice would argue that our approach to the practice of law is “old school” in any sense of the term. The significant drivers of our growth include rethinking major facets of law practice, including organizational structure, compensation models, project management and technology adoption. However, while I am very much a tinkerer with respect to the delivery of legal services, I am quite old-school in my view of what lawyers fundamentally are, or at least should be: trusted counsel.

In a heated, high-stakes lawsuit or investigation, virtually everything you’ve ever said in writing to investors, to other executives, to friends and family, can be forced out into the open for everyone to review except for confidential communications with the Company’s lawyers (attorney-client privilege).  Take a moment to let that sink in. Nothing that you ever do or say as a company is more secure from forced disclosure than what you say to your lawyers.  That is, of course, unless the lawyers themselves disclose it.

Ask many founders whether they really trust the lawyers representing their company, and some will flat out say that, to them, their lawyers are just subject-matter experts there to paper deals and ensure the company doesn’t blow up from legal issues; highly-educated paper pushers and fire extinguishers.  Others will say that they do trust (in a sense) their lawyers, but when pushed into a serious, high-stakes situation in which total objectivity and confidence is paramount, the reality of their superficial relationship will surface.

  • Is the valuation they’re offering appropriate for our company, geography, and market?
  • Is this provision dangerous? Is it standard?
  • Some local people are pushing us to X accelerator, but we’re not sure it’s right for us. What should we do?
  • We need to make a major strategic shift that some of our stakeholders will want to block – what are our options?
  • My company is going under if I don’t get this deal done, but X investor says he will block it. Can he? What are my options?
  • We just got an acquisition offer, and I’m not sure whether it’s fair to me and my management team. What should we do?
  • One of our senior executives just got arrested. No one can find out about this until we know more. What do we do?

These are just a few of the kinds of questions that trusted counsel gets asked.  But trust, particularly the kind of trust we’re talking about here, carries a high price tag: independence and objectivity.  How can you trust my opinion about whether an acquisition offer is fair to the Company if the investors pushing you to sell have me on speed dial, and just sent me an invitation to their pool party? How can you trust me to give an honest assessment of a term sheet, or even a comparison of one term sheet v. another, if I’ve closed 20 deals for the VCs who submitted one of those term sheets, and have 3 more in the works? You are one deal. They are 25. Lawyers aren’t that bad at math.

Let’s be real: you can’t. Not possible. Founders know it, and in a world in which so many lawyers have given into the incestuous biz dev practice of playing both sides of the VC table, the result is a deep cynicism toward startup lawyers. Do I choose X firm or Y firm? Whatever. They’re all the same. I’ll just go with the cheaper one, or whatever one makes closing my financing easier. Some lawyers who regularly represent startups have even strategically made VC fund formation a core component of their firm. Smooth.

What “Alignment” Really Means

To the majority of lawyers (outside of the startup space) and investors (outside of the startup space), the above views are totally uncontroversial.  Make sure your own lawyers are independent and objective? Umm, yeah, thanks Captain Obvious. And even within the smaller sphere of startup/VC work, I know several investors and lawyers who draw a hard, ethical line to ensure that their reputation is not muddied in the pursuit of short-term revenue. If their investor-client is investing in a startup, they don’t shimmy over to the other side of the table with a smile on their face and a conflict waiver in-hand. They insist that the startup get their own lawyers. Trusted counsel.

But then there are the other people. “Deals get done faster” – “Startups save money on legal fees” – and (my favorite) “We’re all really aligned here, so why do we need two sets of lawyers?” Seriously?

I like to take complex issues and distill them into very simple statements totally free of B.S., so here’s one for you: when someone buys your startup for $200MM, there’s ultimately two places that money can go: in your pocket (and of your co-founders, team, etc.), or the pocket of your investors.

What was that about “alignment” again? And to be clear, the price tag gets negotiated in the acquisition, but guess where the % distribution between Pocket A and Pocket B gets largely negotiated? Financings. 1% of $200MM is $2 million.  So you’re negotiating whether millions of dollars in an exit will go into founders’ pockets or VCs pockets, and you’re telling founders they should just use the VC’s lawyers to close the round – because it saves maybe $10-20K in legal fees? Right. Thanks for ‘looking out’ on the legal budget.

Founders and their investors have shared interests in building a highly successful, profitable company. That much is doubtlessly true. But anyone who uses “alignment” as a justification for founders not worrying about the independence of their lawyers is either (a) totally lying or (b) laughably lacking in even a basic understanding of human nature. 

This is not to say at all that founder-investor relations should be viewed as adversarial. Clearly not. I’m all for honesty, respect, transparency, and the like in company-investor relations.  It’s an important long-term relationship.  However, healthy relationships are built on reality. And the reality is that VCs have limited partners for whom they are legally obligated to maximize returns. It doesn’t at all make them bad people. It just means that they, like the rest of us, have a job to do. They are not your best friends, they are not your mom, and they are most certainly not fully “aligned” with the company’s economic interests. Hire your lawyers accordingly.

Drawing a Firm Line

In Austin, you frequently hear the mantra “be authentic.” No, not authentic in some anti-corporate, hipster sense, but “be who you say you are. do what you say you’re going to do.” Don’t hide behind excuses like “this is how it’s always been done before,” or “this is how the game has to be played.” Change the game. Rewrite the rules.

A while back the tech/vc attorneys at E/N sat down together over lunch to discuss the above issue. We’ve all dealt with it at prior firms we worked at, and there was no possible way of doing anything about it there. But there’s a funny thing about leaving big, corporate environments for smaller, focused firms (like startups) – it’s much easier to establish a set of firm principles, infuse them into the group’s culture, and protect them as the group grows.  And here we are: E/N, as a firm, does not and will not play both sides of the Tech VC table.

Everyone here understands it, is committed to it, and anyone who wants to join the firm will have to as well. And many of our clients are well aware of high-profile early-stage investors whom we’ve, politely, chosen not to represent as a result of this policy. Loss in short-term revenue? Sure.  But this is a long-term play. Rather than following other lawyers and firms in chasing anyone who will write us a check, we believe deeply in preserving our clients’ trust, and have chosen to bet on it.  If you want a paper pusher, I’m happy to make some recommendations. We provide legal counsel.

Should Non-SV Founders Use SAFEs in Seed Rounds?

Nutshell: Because of the golden rule (whoever has the gold…), probably not – at least not for now.

Background Reading:

For some time now, there have been people in the general startup ecosystem who have dreamt that, some day, investment (or at least early-stage investment) in startups will become so standardized and high velocity that there will be no negotiation on anything but the core economic terms. Fill in a few numbers, click a few buttons, and boom – you’ve closed the round.  No questions about the rest of the language in the document. For the .1% of startups with so much pull that they really can dictate terms to investors (YC startups included), this is in fact the case.  But then there’s the other 99.9%, much of which lies outside of Silicon Valley.

Much has been written about how SAFEs were an ‘upgrade’ on the convertible note structure, and in many ways they are.  But anyone who works in technology knows that there’s a lot more to achieving mass adoption than being technically superior, including the “stickiness” of the current market leader (switching costs) and whether the marginal improvements on features make those costs a non-issue. And any good lawyer knows that when a client asks you whether she should use X or Y, she’s not paying you for theory. You dropped that sh** on your way out of law school.

This isn’t California

From the perspective of founders and startups outside of California, which are the focus of SHL, the reality is that going with a SAFE investment structure is very rarely worth the cost of educating/convincing Texas angel investors on why they shouldn’t worry and just sign the dotted line. The entire point of the convertible note structure, which by far dominates Texas seed rounds, is to keep friction/negotiation to a minimum.  Yes, there are many reasons why equity is technically superior, but that’s not the point.  You agree on the core terms (preferably via a term sheet), draft a note, they quickly review it to make sure it looks kosher, and you close.  You worry about the rest later, when you’ve built more momentum.  Professional angels know what convertible notes are, and how they should look. They also know how to tweak them.  In Texas, many of them still do not know what a SAFE is. 

And, in truth, many Texas angels and seed VCs who do in fact know what a SAFE is simply aren’t willing to sign one. The core benefit of SAFEs to startups is that they don’t mature, and hence founders without cash can’t be forced to pay them back or liquidate.  To many California investors, this isn’t a big deal, because they’ve always viewed maturity as a gun with no bullets.  But Texas investors don’t see it that way.  Many find comfort in knowing that, before their equity position is solidified, they have a sharp object to point at founders in case things go haywire. I’ve seen a few founders who rounded up one or two seasoned angels willing to sign SAFEs, only to have to re-do their seed docs when #3 or #4 showed up and required a convertible note to close. It’s not worth the hassle, unless you have your entire seed round fully subscribed and OK with SAFEs

Just Tweak Your Notes

The smarter route to dealing with the TX/CO/GA and similar market funding environment is to simply build mechanics into your notes that give a lot of the same benefits as SAFEs. A summary:

  • Use a very low interest rate, like 1-2%. – Many local angels tend to favor higher interest rates (seeing 4-8%) than west and east coast seed investors. But if you can get a very low rate, it’s more like a SAFE.
  • Use a very long maturity period, like 36 months. – 18-24 months seems to have become more acceptable in TX, which is usually more than enough time to close an equity round, or at least get enough traction that your debt-holders will keep the weapons in their pockets.  But if you can get 36 months, go for it.
  • Have the Notes automatically convert at maturity –  This gets you as close to a SAFE as possible, and we’ve seen many angels accept it. If you run out of time and hit maturity, either the angels extend, or the Notes convert, often into common stock at either a pre-determined valuation (like the valuation cap, or a discount on the cap), or at a valuation determined at the conversion time.

How successful you’ll be at getting the above is just a matter of bargaining power and the composition of your investor base. Austin investors, who think more (but not completely) like California investors, tend to be more OK with these kinds of terms.  In Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio, you’ll likely get a bit more pushback.  But that pushback will almost certainly be less than what you’d get from handing someone a SAFE.

Closing Summary: There isn’t, and likely will never be, a national standard for seed investment documentation.  Every ecosystem has its nuances, and working with people who know those nuances will save you a lot of headaches. In Texas, the convertible note, however suboptimal, reigns supreme. Respect that reality, and work within it to get what you want.

The Many Flavors of Seed Investor “Pro-Rata” Rights

Nutshell: Taking seed investment from institutional investors is supposed to be akin to getting engaged; they’ve made a credible commitment to you, but your options are still open to walk if a better Series A partner shows up.  However, if you don’t read an investor’s “pro rata” terms carefully, you’ll find that you’re no longer the bachelor (or bacholerette) you thought you were.

Guiding Principles:

  1. Large seed round investors have an incentive to gain as much control over the composition of your Series A round as they can get – to maintain (or increase) their ownership % of the cap table, and to reduce competition from new outside investors, who might be better for your company.
  2. Founders’ interests, however, are completely the opposite – get large, influential seed investors on the cap table, but minimize their ability to control who leads the Series A.  The greater the flexibility in taking Series A term sheets, the more competition, the higher the valuation for the company.

The Main Issue

No one covers the entire issue of why prorata rights are important to seed investors better than Mark Suster: What all Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Prorata Rights. Because of the economics of seed investing, the ability of seed investors to secure follow-on positions in their “winners” is critical to their portfolio returns.  Also, institutional VCs will typically only write seed checks if they have a reasonable shot at securing a substantial position (15-20%+) in a Series A round.  For these reasons, seed investors will often require, as a condition to their investment, the right to make follow-on investments in future rounds.  These are usually called “pro rata” rights because, on a basic level, the investor gets the right to purchase her “pro rata percentage” of future rounds.  But the point of this post is that how “pro rata” is defined can have substantial consequences in future financings.

While seed investors’ requiring some form of pro-rata is understandable (I’ve found California seed investors demand it much more often than Texas investors), Founders need to be aware that the more follow-on investment rights they grant in their seed, the less flexibility they have in bringing in large, potentially better VCs in the Series A round.  That “bigger fish” that wasn’t around for your seed round will expect at least 15-20% of the Company in the A round, or it won’t “move their needle.”  Getting that VC to this threshold becomes very hard if you’ve already promised your existing investors a huge portion of the A-round.

Being too relaxed about your seed investors’ follow-on investment rights will either (i) force you to give away a very large percentage of your company in the Series A (to “feed” everyone), and/or (ii) give your existing investors the ability to block a term sheet from that outside investor you really want. 

The Flavors

Pro Rata of Fully Diluted – The Classic Engagement.

By far the most common (and company favorable) definition of “pro rata” in seed rounds is pro rata of the Company’s fully diluted capitalization.  This means that the denominator by which the particular investor’s ownership is divided (to determine their pro rata %) is the entire capitalization of the Company, including outstanding shares, options, warrants, and shares reserved but unissued under the Company’s equity plan.  So, for example, if Investor X paid $50K for 100,000 shares, and the total fully diluted capitalization is 5,750,000 shares, then his pro rata percentage is about 1.74% (100K/5.75MM).  If you do a new $1 million round, Investor X has the right to purchase 1.74% of that round.

But a very important wrinkle is that, if the seed round in which the rights were granted is a convertible note round (it almost always is), the investor’s ownership percentage isn’t set yet; so there’s no easy way to calculate the formula.  The note needs to be converted (or at least assumed converted) to arrive at a %.  Without getting too much in the weeds, there are a lot of variables here that can influence what % the investor eventually gets:

  • Does the pro rata right only kick in once the note is converted? If so, then the Company can raise more note rounds (without having to offer pro-rata to existing investors), and those notes will convert alongside Investor X’s note, shrinking his pro-rata %.
  • Do we assume conversion before it actually happens? If so, do we assume it as of the date of issuance (fixed pro-rata), or the date in which the pro-rata right is being calculated (variable, potentially diluted by new rounds)?

The devil is in the details, and the details heavily influence what % an investor is ultimately entitled to.

Pro Rata of the Existing Round – The “You’re Really Married” Version.

On the other end of the spectrum is a significantly less common definition of “pro rata” that nevertheless pops up on occasion in seed rounds: pro rata based on the existing round.  Here, the denominator for the formula is not the fully diluted capitalization, but the round in which Investor X invested – a substantially smaller denominator, and hence a much larger percentage. Example: if Investor X made a $50K investment in a $500K seed round, her “pro rata” under this formula is 10% ($50K/$500K).

Did you see what happened? A tiny variation in the pro-rata language increased Investor X’s pro rata % nearly 6-fold.  And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll realize that, if everyone in your $500K seed round got these pro-rata rights, you’ve just given your seed investors first dibs on your entire Series A. While it’s not as crazy to give your Series B investors first dibs on your entire Series C, since they’re likely deep-pocketed VCs whom you already have a long-term commitment to, giving your seed investors that kind of control of your Series A is dangerous.  It’s the startup equivalent of getting married when you’re 16, before you’ve had a chance to mature and find “the one.”  Be careful.

Other Follow-on Rights

We sometimes encounter other variations of follow-on investment rights that aren’t quite pro-rata rights, but they’re worth mentioning because investors are requesting them for the same reasons.  Warrants granting the right to purchase a fixed $ amount in the Series A are sometimes requested.  I’ve also seen side letters stating flat out that Investor X gets first dibs on Y% of the Series A.  Obviously, like any provision, it ends up being about leverage and the type of investor you’re negotiating with.

The guiding principle for founders should always be to put a limit on their seed investors’ follow-on investment rights.  I personally believe that straight pro-rata of fully diluted is fair and reasonable, but anything above that is overreaching by seed investors trying to control the A round.  By all means keep your seed investors interested and informed, and ensure they are offered the opportunity to lead your Series A.  That’s why they bet on you in the first place.  But the opportunity to lead the Series A is very different from the right to lead the A. If someone demands the latter, it’s time to get serious, because you just got a marriage proposal.

The Tech Law Ecosystem vs. BigLaw; Except in Silicon Valley

Question: Why is it that, despite being the epicenter of championing innovative business models, dynamic markets, and the disruption of bloated institutions, Silicon Valley remains dominated by a handful of very large, expensive law firms built on century-old delivery models?

The Blunt Answer: Those large firms have dedicated biz dev people whose job is to write checks/cut deals with market players for referrals, and establish referral circles with investors who have heavy influence on the “pipeline.”  Referral pipelines rife with conflicts of interest have enabled BigLaw to entrench itself.

The entrenched firms deliberately seek out VCs (not just companies) as clients, who tacitly understand that, in exchange for the firms’ not pushing too hard on VC deals (when they represent companies), the VCs are supposed to act deeply concerned when they don’t see one of the good ol’ firms at the table; even if the lawyer they’re poo-pooing has impeccable credentials, experience, and even just left one of the very same firms on their ‘preferred list.’ Sound incestuous? It is. See Don’t Use Your Lead Investor’s Lawyers and Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers.

It’s well known among the tech law community that no tech ecosystem –not Austin, Seattle, Boston, NYC, etc. – takes law firm “brand obsession” to levels anywhere near those of Silicon Valley, in large part for the above reasons.

History

The full answer is of course a bit more complicated. See: When the A-Lawyers Break Free: BigLaw 2.0.  Before the Cloud and SaaS, big firms truly were necessary to deliver the tier of legal counsel that top tech companies needed, and Silicon Valley’s early growth period occurred largely in that era.  But at some point technology changes things, and the rules of the game shift.  I’ve staked my career on the view that this shift has occurred, and is accelerating.  I left a large, full service firm designed around the traditional “one stop law shop” model for a smaller firm that leverages technology and an ecosystem of top solo lawyers, boutique firms, and other services to replicate “full service” in a much more efficient and flexible way.

A Summary of Why The Ecosystem is Emerging (Outside of Silicon Valley)

  • There have always been second and third tier small firms that (i) picked up clients top firms were not interested in, and (ii) employed lawyers who either never met the criteria of top firms, or dropped out of those firms because they were fine accepting less interesting work and lower compensation for a more easy-going life.  An alternative to going in-house, these lawyers call themselves “outsourced general counsel.”
  • Top, well-funded clients that reached scale (the kind that seek out and are willing to pay for top lawyers) inevitably required a large set of legal specialties: tax, executive comp, IP, tech transactions, trademarks, etc. to handle all of their legal needs.
  • Lacking an affordable, third-party collaboration infrastructure (like today’s Cloud/SaaS tools) to coordinate all of these different lawyers, keeping everyone (dozens of different specialties) under the same roof to share the high fixed overhead costs was historically essential to getting large deals done smoothly and as efficiently (for the time) as possible.
  • Hence, top paying clients gravitated to large firms that could serve them, and as long as those large firms paid the most, top lawyers (in all specialties) were willing to accept the astronomical overhead, convoluted structure, and inefficiency of their large employers.
  • But now, virtually every proprietary resource that large firms once had exclusivity on is available as a SaaS tool or outsourced service, along with very affordable and extremely effective collaboration tools.
  • Therefore, those top lawyers, once locked into large firms, are realizing that as long as they can wrestle away top clients from BigLaw, they no longer have to put up with taking home only a small percentage of their billings.  They can drop their rates significantly, take advantage of their small footprint to optimize for their practice area, and take home at least as much, and often much more, as they did in large firms.  A win-win for lawyer and client – but a loss for “The Beast.”
  • End-Result: A growing ecosystem of significantly smaller, more flexible law firms and solo lawyers that (i) are at the top of their field, well compensated, and have much better quality of life, and (ii) by collaborating with one another, replicate BigLaw’s “full service,” without its soul-sucking bureaucracy.

Austin’s “Cut the BS” Culture: The Ecosystem Grows

In my opinion and based on observations from interacting with players in various ecosystems, Austin’s legal market is at the forefront of this emerging lawyer ecosystem.  Here the quality of attorneys outside of BigLaw – multi-specialty small firms, single-specialty boutiques, and even solos  – is extremely high and increasing, because the client base here isn’t anywhere near as brand-obsessed as in Silicon Valley.  We still have our own cronyism, but our strong “be authentic” cultural bent helps keep it in check.

At MEMN, we connect clients on a regular basis with experienced, top-tier corporate, tax, trademark, litigation, executive comp., patent, etc. attorneys outside of BigLaw, all with better credentials than the lawyers BigLaw throws to startups, and at rates often below inexperienced junior lawyers at large firms.  And, as far as I know, none of us took a pay-cut in leaving BigLaw.  I am fully convinced that this ecosystem will continue to gain traction, and we have every intention of pushing that traction outside of the Texas market, including connecting with firms in other markets doing the same.

How BigLaw Will Respond

Of course BigLaw is responding, but it’s important to keep in mind that “BigLaw” is a set of many different players, each with their own perspectives on the old model.  The big winners of the traditional law firm model were (i) the many layers of in-house administration and management needed to coordinate dozens of specialties and hundreds of different kinds of lawyers, and (ii) the power rain-makers sitting atop the pyramid extracting a significant amount of billings from lawyers doing the work, including all the specialists. These constituencies will absolutely do everything they can to protect the old model.

The main marketing message that will emerge from these groups will be one of “integration.”  They will argue that keeping everyone under a single structure provides benefits that make up for the overhead and inertia. In other words, they’ll try to portray themselves as the “Apple” of law.  Expensive and huge, but “worth it.” I love my iPhone 6.

Without getting stuck on this topic because this post is long enough, anyone who thinks about it will be skeptical of an analogy between software-hardware integration and the ‘integration’ of lawyers in dozens of different specialties, especially as technology continues to erode the friction in cross-firm collaboration.  A better analogy would be something like the Mayo Clinic, but of course that would mean that BigLaw must accept that only the absolutely most complex transactions (think billion-dollar, multi-national mergers) truly require its “integration” – and The Ecosystem would be more than happy to unburden BigLaw (which would then not be nearly so big) of the other 99.9% of the market.

While management and top rain-makers will work to protect The Beast, the rest of the BigLaw pyramid will, over time, come to realize that The Ecosystem is more of a liberator than a competitive threat.  Finally, a way to practice your specialty much more effectively, do interesting work, get paid well for your talent, and not have the significant majority sucked up to pay for “stuff” that doesn’t enhance your work.  Much like how technology has created an explosion of interesting, well-paying work outside of large organizations in many “knowledge worker” industries, The Ecosystem is simply an extension of that process to law.

A Message to BigLawyers

Ask yourself: if you’re billing $625/hr at a large firm and have developed strong relationships with clients, what will those clients say if you tell them you can do the exact same work for them, but charge $400/hr instead – the only real change being the signature block on your e-mails? Certainly The Beast, including the deal lawyer who ‘controls’ the relationship, will do everything it can to push the work to another $625/hr attorney in the firm. But what will the Client say?

Viewed this way, BigLaw today can be accurately described as a mechanism by which rain-makers who (lower-case c) “control” client relationships force the “labor” lawyers to stay in one large firm, accepting only a small percentage of the value they produce in exchange for “deal flow.” And by having the talent pool controlled in this way, clients who need top lawyers have to pay the higher rates to feed The Beast and the rainmakers.  The Ecosystem, and the fact that no one really controls clients (who won’t be forced to pay $625/hr when they can find the same lawyer for $400), throws a wrench in this structure.

A Message to Lawyers Building The Ecosystem

  • Collaborate;
  • Optimize;
  • Don’t fall back on generalism, but resist artisanal lawyering;
  • And absolutely do not underestimate ever the importance of branding and marketing.

Start talking to each other and sharing work.  Being solo has many inefficiencies, and for many specialties the “optimal” structure will likely be more focused firms that effectively leverage their institutional knowledge with targeted, efficient tools and processes.

Take advantage of your small footprint to experiment and iterate on process, technology, pricing, etc. that was never possible under a large firm – you are a startup.  Resist the urge to price yourself as a generalist who does boring, cheap work, but also don’t design your firm in a way that is so “high-touch, high-end” that it can’t scale.  If you’ve hit on something that works, scale it and liberate more BigLawyers.

And absolutely never, ever pretend that all it takes to succeed is to simply “be a good lawyer.”  Clients care about brand and prestige, including the deal lawyers who connect you to clients. No one can find you if you don’t know the slightest thing about marketing yourself. Serious companies won’t want to hire you if your website looks like it was built overnight by a middle schooler. Learn.

The Ecosystem will be built by the most entrepreneurial of BigLaw, including those who are confident enough in their personal brand to break free from The Beast. Once a path has been laid, the more timid will follow.

And a Message to the Gatekeepers

So you say that you’re all about disruption and transparent markets, yet you continue to hand out referrals to firms that write you checks and send attractive blondes offering steak dinners.  I’m not mad at you.  I know how the game works.  Upstanding doctors fall prey all the time to Big Pharma’s biz dev tactics, so I totally understand your inability to resist being a hypocritical little sh**.

Thankfully, every ecosystem (Austin included) has enough gatekeepers who believe in true meritocracy.  The Ecosystem is growing and will continue to grow. Companies will find a much more vibrant, dynamic legal market.  Top lawyers will find interesting, well-paying work in non-soul-sucking settings, and the most innovative will be rewarded with scale.  I’m not pretending to be Mother Theresa and absolutely have an economic dog in this fight.  But knowing all the benefits that accrue both to startups and to lawyers (my people) from it, supporting The Ecosystem is absolutely part of my mission.