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.

“Top Startups” Lists and Accelerators

TL;DR: “Top Startup lists” are being used as complements, and in some cases replacements, to accelerators for helping entrepreneurs signal their talent to investors.

Background reading:

The value proposition of elite universities is a fairly straightforward 3-part bundle:

A. Education

B. Talent Sorting / Signaling

C. Network

Data showing that top students who attend elite universities perform on average the same as those who are similarly accepted but attend lower-ranked schools proves that the actual education elite universities provide isn’t nearly as important as some people think; at least for most students. But their talent signaling and network functions are fairly important and durable, and it’s very hard for competitors to build viable business models to deliver them; though some are succeeding.

Respected employers willing to not require elite educations are, for example, talent signaling competitors to elite universities. Being  “Google Alumni” can be seen as more value determinative than being “MIT Alumni.”

Now, the value proposition of top accelerators is also a fairly straightforward 3-part bundle:

A. Education

B. Talent Sorting / Signaling

C. Network

Look familiar? Many post-accelerator founders will tell you that the actual educational content accelerators provide is hardly that big of a deal to them. I’ve definitely known some entrepreneurs who find it useful, but the more hustler autodidact types will say it’s just re-hashed versions of what you can find online and in books. But the other two propositions (talent signaling and network) are harder to build.

To the extent accelerators build respected brands – and by that I mean respected by investors and other ecosystem players entrepreneurs want to connect with – their ability to sort through the ecosystem’s “noise” and signal talent, and therefore reduce search costs, is extremely important for founders. I would say most of the founders we work with understand instinctively that the main reason to attend any accelerator is to simply make it a lot easier to connect with investors. And yes, for the right accelerators, it works. Big time. 

Sidenote: Attending a B-class accelerator can be worse than attending none at all. If the A-accelerators reject you, you can just pretend to be one of the many companies that never even try to attend them; and just find other “signals” to use. But by attending a B-class accelerator, people now know you tried and were vetted, then rejected. Can be a scarlet letter.

Education? The best information is online and in books. Network? Not proprietary. Founders who can hustle know how to access all the same top people, many of whom want to ensure their own personal brands aren’t captive to an accelerator; ensuring significant “leakage” of the network. The networks of accelerators are compilations of the personal networks of individual people, and by bringing all of those people together for a period of time, without the leverage to lock them in, they’ve made it far easier for the network to be unbundled and re-bundled without the gatekeeping fee.

But it’s the reduction in search costs for connecting with investors (the talent sorting / signaling) that is the real money maker for accelerators. And yet talk privately with many investors, and they’ll tell you they resent the “hunger games” demo day and investor herding dynamics some accelerators produce, even if it’s the price for having someone else do a lot of the company filtering for you.

A short list of accelerators have built real and durable talent signaling brands, and are worth their cost tenfold. The challenge for some has been maintaining them, and not supplementing themselves with business models misaligned with the goal of being very selective. Accelerators heavily tied to real estate/co-working, for example, are tempted to dilute the accelerator brand by accepting a lot more people, because they can still monetize them with offices (even if their equity isn’t worth anything). Lower your standards to fill office space, and your talent signal weakens, which means fewer top people show up to your events, which dilutes your network proposition, which further weakens the quality of your startups, and now you’re in a death spiral.

One thing you’re seeing all over the place in startup ecosystems today is “top startups lists.” “Top startups to watch.” Top this, top that. Top 50. Top 25. Top 10.

Initially, my reaction was to judge these lists as just PR plays. Politics/brand driven founders who want a bit of an ego stroke pander to publications to get on them, and in turn the publications get eyeballs and visibility, and can make money off of ads.

But analyze what these lists are, or could be, from the perspective of the talent sorting/signaling function of accelerators, particularly at early stage. To the extent some publications can build highly credible “top startup lists” – the kinds that investors and other players pay close attention to, they could prove to be viable competitors to the talent signaling proposition of accelerators.

I actually think many entrepreneurs understand this, and it’s why they care so much about getting on these lists, and why the lists are proliferating. If your ultimate goal is just to connect with investors, “top startup lists” that get real brand credibility could, much more cheaply, get you the “signal” you need to get meetings with selective investors.  Of course, it boils down to whether the right publications are willing to put in the time to build the needed credibility, and not make them simply politics or “pay to play” schemes. I suspect many won’t, but some will.

By no means am I under the delusion that accelerators and top startups lists are direct competitors; especially not at the highest tier. Many smart founders use them, wisely, as complements. The most important thing is for founders to understand what their real purposes are, and to judge them accordingly.  If many founders view accelerators as simply fast-tracks to getting the attention of investors (and they do), then you can fully expect there to be demand for cheaper alternatives, and players willing to experiment in delivering them.

Don’t be an Asshole.

TL;DR: You probably can’t afford to be one.

Background Reading:

A regular theme of SHL involves different ways for founders and executives to protect themselves from bad actors – often via advice that I’m able to give by being in a position of not representing any institutional investors, deliberately. If you want more on that, see: How to avoid “captive” company counsel. 

The purpose of this post is to flip the topic, and discuss why there are very real, non-warm-and-fuzzy, reasons why entrepreneurs/execs should be very careful not to behave like bad actors themselves.

If you apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the business world, you arrive at one very real truth: the most talented, value-additive people in any industry are virtually never in it just for the money. They have enough, and trust their ability to earn more. Their talent allows them to care about other things: like challenging work, trust, friendship, impact, fun, respect, etc. By no means does this suggest they don’t care about money at all – in some cases money is a way for them to ensure they are being valued and respected for what they deliver. But it does mean that anyone who approaches these people with a kind of opportunistic cost-benefit analysis is likely to get ice cold water poured on them, very fast.

Startup ecosystems are full of these kinds of people. If all they cared about was money, they’d never touch early-stage.  If they’re working with startups (and your very early-stage risky startup), there are non-financial motivations higher on the hierarchy of needs at play, and you need to be mindful of that as you interact with them.

When you’re building your brand new or very early-stage company, unless you have a LinkedIn profile that screams “winner,” people all around you are going to be risking their time and money in working with you. There are 1,000 reasons why they might say no, and move on to someone else with a different risk profile. The absolute last thing you want to do is give them a reason to walk away, because they smell an asshole. And trust me, they will walk away. 

“Startup people” react much more viscerally to assholes than “corporate people” do, because the startup world often selects for people who won’t do or tolerate anything for a big payout. The large hierarchies of corporate environments enable, naturally, more hierarchical behavior among peers. In contrast, the “flatter” nature of startup ecosystems generates, and enforces, more “democratic” (respect everyone) norms.

As startup lawyers, we’re often in a position to see firsthand who the assholes in the entrepreneurial community are. They treat lawyers and many other service providers as line items to be deferred, discounted, and written-off to the very last dime, as much as possible; and will play games to manipulate people into giving them more for less. Thinking extremely myopically, these assholes think they’re doing what’s best for their company by grabbing as much as possible on the table – but played out over time, they’re actually whittling down the number of people who will work with them to those who simply don’t have other options. And when someone doesn’t have options, it’s often for a reason. Interestingly, assholes have a way of ending up stuck with other assholes. 

All of this applies just as well to top investors, particularly angel investors (with more freedom than VCs) who know they deliver a lot more than money. God help you if you give them even the slightest reason to think you’re an asshole. Information travels fast.

The definition of a mercenary is someone whose every decision is cost-benefit calculated for money. The fact is that if you build a reputation in a startup ecosystem for being a mercenary – always maximize the valuation, minimize the equity grant, discount the bill – you’re dramatically reducing your chances of making money, simply because of the personalities and values you tend to find in the startup world.

Be careful out there. Don’t be an asshole. On top of it being simply wrong, you probably can’t afford it.

Startup Law Pricing: Fixed v. Hourly

TL;DR: There are very natural reasons – inherent in the dynamics of complex, high-end legal services, including for startups – that explain why flexible time-based billing is still the most common pricing structure among law firms specialized in emerging companies (startup) law. And there are very real downsides and limitations to “fixed fee” pricing that founders all need to be aware of; including, most importantly, that flat fees reward law firms for reducing the quality and flexibility of their work (such as not negotiating key terms, and delegating to junior professionals) in ways that first-time entrepreneurs are often unable to detect. Aggressive investors particularly like promoting flat fees as a way to incentivize your lawyers to not negotiate.

First-time entrepreneurs, who’ve usually never hired serious lawyers before, understandably get heart burn when thinking about the cost of legal services. The goal of this post is to provide some clarity on how legal billing for startups works in general, and to also bust a few myths circulating around ecosystems on the topic.

First, I strongly suggest reading: Lies About Startup Legal Fees. A few highlights:

  • Long-term, client-facing legal technology does not dramatically cut legal spend for startups.
    • As a legal CTO who regularly tests and adopts new legal tech for our boutique firm, I have a very clear understanding of what technology, including cutting edge machine learning/AI, is capable of accomplishing in high-end, high-complexity legal services. In the very early days, where complexity and cross-client variability is minimal (like formations) tech can and does play a key role in keeping costs down, but in startup law its utility breaks down fast. I am a very early adopter, but one thing I don’t adopt is techno-BS.
    • In the long-term, given the high, often irreversible cost of errors and the significant variability between clients, legal technology plays only a small role in cutting overall spending. This is, at the end of the day, a highly trained human judgment/skill driven business, with targeted technology in the background. Anyone trying to make this area “LegalZoom-y” will eventually crash right into the fundamental realities of the business.
    • While some techies will certainly tell you otherwise, the most “disruptive” developments in law aren’t in adopting software or technology, but in eliminating unproductive overhead, simplifying firm structures, and implementing project and knowledge management more consistently and deeply; enabled by off-the-shelf tech that is hardly earth shattering. These strategies cut the cost of legal by hundreds of dollars an hour, while improving responsiveness and quality; which exactly zero pieces of tech can even get close to doing. See: The Boutique Ecosystem v. BigLaw. Subtractive, not additive, innovation.

Sidenote: there are big market opportunities for AI/ML and other legal tech in serving very large clients with hundreds/thousands of related contracts and transactions, all on top of a single corporate structure. I call this “vertical” legal tech. It’s in “horizontal” legal tech (automation across companies) that much of legal tech’s promise has been overblown. After automating secretary/paralegal work, it hits a hard wall of customization, complexity, and high error cost that renders the most cutting edge technology virtually useless.

  • DIY almost always costs more in the long-run – “Legal Technical Debt” is real. The cost of fixing legal errors compounds over time, and saving $1 today will very often cost you $5-10 in a few months or years, no matter how many blog posts you’ve read or templates you’ve downloaded.
  • Compensation and institutional infrastructure drive legal quality and scalability, which controls costs. – Great lawyers, just like great software developers, expect to be compensated for their talent. Oh, and btw, Law School costs about $200-250k and 3 years of your life. Very large firms and smaller firms can both have high-quality lawyers if they pay them properly, with the real difference being the additional overhead on top of compensation. Larger firms have much higher overhead to pay for infrastructure needed to represent unicorns in very large deals. Boutique firms are lower-overhead, and better designed for “normals.” Solos are best for small businesses.

Second, another Startup Law myth worth busting is the idea that fixing legal fees (as opposed to more flexible hourly billing) “aligns” incentives between entrepreneurs and their lawyers. I touch on this topic a bit in Standardization v. Flexibility in Startup Law.

It’s become lazily fashionable to criticize the billable hour as the main source of inefficiency in law. But the reluctance in traditional law firms to adopt technology and improve processes is driven, at least among startup-focused firms, far more by the decision-making structure of the firms, and the inertia that creates, than the billable hour. Partners in those firms often have so much control over how their clients are served, that the firm as an institution is incapable of mandating large-scale change. The egos of partners hold back the profession far more than billing structure.

The idea that time-based billing means lawyers are just going to maximize how much they charge clients, and never optimize, is economically ridiculous and ignorant. The lawyer-client relationship is very long-term, and smart entrepreneurs can easily get info in the market if they feel their lawyers are over-charging. Switching to more efficient firms is not that difficult.  Costs in Startup Law have been going down significantly over the past decade, with hourly billing still being the norm. There is a very short feedback loop on law firm pricing, which incentivizes firms to reduce truly unnecessary costs. A team can very easily take an invoice and ask other founders/startups whether it is inflated relative to market norms. The feedback loop on qualitative issues, like poor negotiation or errors, is far longer and more opaque, because those issues often aren’t discovered until years later, and even then its hard to compare apples to apples between companies. 

If you (cynically) think that hourly billing gives your lawyers a strong incentive to over-work, then fixed billing gives your lawyers an even stronger incentive to under-work. By guaranteeing a law firm a price on a transaction, regardless of how long it takes, you’ve tied their ROI to how little time they spend on it; narrowing optionality, delegating to less trained people, and rushing through material issues all become drivers of profitability. In the world of serious legal services, where speed/cheapness are hardly the only concern of clients, and there are very material, difficult-to-detect qualitative variables in service output, the idea that this is “aligning” lawyers with their clients is nonsense. Fixed fees do not align incentives; they reverse them.

Fixing fees, when the circumstances for “fixability” aren’t really in place (more on that below), therefore raises serious quality concerns. In healthcare, a botched job is almost always quickly noticeable to the patient. In law, especially startup law (where the client often isn’t seasoned enough to detect errors/rushed work) big quality issues can, and often do, take years to surface, since they’re tucked away in docs that sit unused until a major event, or the inexperienced founders simply never realize that an option their lawyer could have brought up, wasn’t. This, by the way, is why the most experienced players in any market are always deeply skeptical of new legal service entrants promising low prices, even if they’re early adopters in many other areas. It takes real effort and quality signaling to get them off of reputable legal brands. That reluctance is logical, given the opaque and high stakes nature of the service; very different from most fields.

If your law firm has agreed to a fixed fee, and suddenly you find yourself spending a lot more time interacting with paralegals working off of checklists (instead of lawyers), now you know what “alignment” really means.  Fixed fees are not magical, and they come with very real tradeoffs. You can have the exact same end-price for a transaction between time-based lawyers and flat fee lawyers, and the flat fee lawyers will be rewarded for minimizing the work they perform, and reducing quality; especially when the client isn’t fully capable of assessing that quality, which is often the case with new entrepreneurs. 

In a high-stakes deal, guess who would love to see your lawyers rush and under-negotiate? Investors. Watch out for law firms with deep ties to the investor community. If they’re peddling fixed fees, it’s because their real clients (investors) are incentivizing them to.

The predominance of the hourly billing model among high-end law firms is, first and foremost, a reflection of the significant variability among client needs and expectations, and the fact that flexible hourly billing is the most effective way to tailor work for each client, without reducing quality standards.

  • Need a reseller agreement? We’ve drafted them for $1.5K, $5K, and over $20K. Unpredictable variables: strategic importance of the deal, dollar value, size of the company, location, who the reseller is, who the reseller’s lawyers are, industry, and a dozen others.
  • I see “seed stage” startups who spend nothing on legal for a full year, some that spend $10K, others $25K, and a few that spend $100K, all due to widely varying needs.
  • I’ve seen “Series A” financings close for $15K, $30K, and over $100K, and everywhere in-between, and all for perfectly logical reasons understood by the client in the context.
  • M&A deals are totally all over the place in terms of time and costs.
  • In short, companies are not like medical patients. Biology and medical science produce very clear “bell curves” that enable things like health insurance pricing and fixed-fee medical procedure costs. There is no underlying DNA/biology constraining variability among companies, and therefore far less rhyme or reason across a legal client base.  The drivers of legal cost variability are far wider, subjective, unpredictable, and randomly distributed, which makes fixed-fee pricing not feasible for many broad-scope firms and clients.
    • Name another field in which, on top of there being significant variability of the working environment (the legal/contract ‘code base’ for each company), there are also subjective drivers of cost on both the client side (your client’s preferences heavily drive time commitment) and also the third-party side (the counterparty/lawyers on the other side can dramatically increase time commitment). The level of structural uncertainty and variability is much higher than healthcare, construction, manufacturing, consulting, and many other industries.
  • Given the above, the only way to make fixed-fee pricing work economically in corporate law is to “tame” this variability, and that “taming” results in downsides that are often unacceptable both to firms and to clients.

So what are the variables that help “tame” client work enough to make fixed fee pricing viable in Startup Law?

A. Very early work – There is a reason that formation documents are the most heavily automated and price-fixed in startup law: the number of unknowns and idiosyncracies are minimized. When a startup has decided on a “standard” VC-track C-Corp structure (which, btw, we see this becoming a less obvious decision for founders – see More Startups are LLCs), there are no outside parties to negotiate with, or other lawyers to deal with. The scope is clear, and the circumstances in which costs could go off the rails are minimized. Most of our clients are incorporated/formed on a fixed fee.

  • Anyone who observes the heavily tech automation / fixed-fee driven nature of startup formations and extrapolates that across the full spectrum of legal work is incredibly naive as to how complexity and client variability increase exponentially immediately after formation; as circumstantial differences start to creep into the legal “code base.” The low hanging fruit for legal automation has been eaten (see Clerky), and people who understand both technology and law are rightfully skeptical re: what even the most advanced, cutting edge AI can really do for high-complexity corporate law for the next decade, outside of very *very* narrow applications.

B. Narrow the scope – Remember the point that fixed fees don’t align incentives, but instead reverse them? Fixed fees make it costless for the client to demand more work. This logically means the law firm has to start drawing hard boundaries over what is acceptable for the client to ask for (inflexibility). We recently started our Alpha Program offering a limited scope of early-stage work on a fixed monthly fee. While there’s definitely been interest, a lot of our best clients opt out simply because they prefer maximal flexibility in terms of what work gets done, and how it gets done. In their mind, the whole point of hiring serious lawyers, just like hiring serious software developers, is to not get boxed into a narrow approach.

C. Narrow the client profile – I know a decent number of firms that have built successful practices on heavy fixed fee utilization. The almost universal way they’ve accomplished this is by dramatically narrowing the type of client they take on. Specific industries, specific geographic locations, specific sizes or growth trajectories, etc. Pick a narrow niche, and own it. If you can make your clients look and act far more alike by limiting the type of client you take on, you can more easily create that healthcare-like “bell curve,” and then start pegging prices. But for many law firms that have a diverse client base with diverse needs – including firms that represent startups with varying industries, growth and funding trajectories, subjective preferences, etc. – this is simply not feasible. I have never seen a firm or lawyer successfully utilize fixed-fees at scale without significantly narrowing their target client profile; the economics otherwise don’t work.

  • Note: I have made the argument many times that part of “BigLaw’s” problem is that it simply does too much, and that the “subtractive innovation” brought about by lean boutiques with more specialized practice areas that can collaborate ad-hoc is a meaningful transformation of the legal market. But virtually every specialized high-end boutique we work with still heavily utilizes time-based billing, for all the reasons described here. For fixed-fees to work, you need far narrower specialization than by practice area; like “small businesses under 40 employees” or on the opposite end “very high-growth SaaS companies raising top-tier traditional venture capital.”
  • The need for very narrow specialization driven by fixed fees will create problems for clients who engage a firm that isn’t a 100% good fit. They will inevitably find themselves pushed to mold their company to the rigid capabilities of the narrow firm, which will feel like putting the cart before the horse. What this means is that the decision to keep many law firms more generalist, with more flexible time-based billing, is for many clients a feature; not a bug. 

Our approach to pricing legal services for our startup clients is the result of sitting down and talking to founders about what their concerns really are. What we’ve found is that, more than fixing prices (with all of the downsides that entails), clients just want to prevent surprises, and to not feel like they overpaid. If something takes longer for very good reasons, it’s OK for it to cost more. If it can be done faster, while fulfilling all the client’s goals, then cost-savings should go to the client. Happy clients generate more work and referrals. When combined with transparency and open dialogue, there’s a symmetry and fairness in this approach that is often much more aligned with the “partnership” nature of the long-term lawyer-client relationship than the inflexible dynamics of buying a hardened product. 

So we’ve implemented a number of processes to accomplish that – including regular (more frequent than monthly) billing reports, transparent budget ranges based on our historical client data, and flexible payment options. We’ve found that these go very far toward helping startups get comfortable with their legal bills, without deluding anyone into thinking that you can somehow universally fix the costs of services that are inherently unpredictable to everyone. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) as of today is 77.

Tying this all together, entrepreneurs should understand that there are very logical, client-centric reasons for why the billable hour remains the dominant billing model for serious law firms working with diverse clients; notwithstanding what lazy arm-chair commentators say about the billable hour. Law is hardly the only industry that utilizes “cost plus” billing, which is what the billable hour is. Occasionally I run into founders who struggle to grasp this, and then I’ll find that they’ve engaged a software developer as a contractor who, lo and behold, is paid by the hour. Many startup lawyers refer to their job as “coding in Word.”

That developer didn’t go to Stanford to practice cookie-cutter programming, and I didn’t go to Harvard to practice cookie-cutter law.  Fixed fees are not – at all – a magical panacea that suddenly smooths out all the challenges of engaging serious lawyers. To the contrary, they create their own major problems.  Open dialogue between client and law firm will keep costs reasonable, and minimize surprises, without getting stuck with all the downsides of productizing something that fundamentally isn’t a product.

Contracts v. Might Makes Right

TL;DR: When a first-time entrepreneur is navigating an environment full of entrenched players who all know and depend on each other, the difference between a balanced decision process and a shake down can come down to a contract. Take contracts, and the independence of the lawyers who help negotiate them, seriously.

Background reading:

A background theme of many SHL posts is the following: entrepreneurs enter their startup ecosystems, from the beginning, at a massive structural disadvantage relative to the various market players they are going to be negotiating with. Everyone else knows each other, has worked with each other over the years, and has already made their money. And then you show up.

Now assume that environment as the background, and then imagine you start striking deals with these people: for a financing, a partnership, participation in a program, etc., but assume there are no contracts or lawyers involved. What do you think will eventually happen? Here’s how it will play out: as long as you continue to deliver exactly what everyone wants from you, very little will happen. When everyone’s expectations and preferences are 100% aligned in the short term, the absence of contracts means very little. They’ll “let” you stay in the spot you’re in. 

Until things (inevitably) go sideways. A market shift suddenly means a change in strategy might be necessary, but there’s disagreement on how and when. A quarter comes in under projections, and there’s disagreement as to what that means. A potential outside investor expresses interest in making an investment, and there’s internal disagreement as to whether it should be pursued.

I focus here on the word disagreement, because in many situations on high-level strategic issues, the right answer isn’t always clear cut. The goal (grow the company, improve economics) may be clear, but the right execution strategy is far harder to see.  People will disagree, and where they stand on an issue often rests on where they sit. For example, “portfolio” players (institutional investors) will often be far more comfortable, and even insistent, on taking higher risk (but much higher reward) growth strategies than entrepreneurs and employees, who have only “one shot.”  See Common Stock v. Preferred Stock for a more in-depth discussion on the substantial misalignment between “one shot” players (entrepreneurs, employees), who usually hold common stock, v. portfolio/repeat players (investors), who usually hold preferred stock.

The core point of this post is this: in an environment of substantial disagreement, and where everyone other than the entrepreneur is a repeat player that knows and has economic ties to each other, the first-time entrepreneur (who speaks for the early common stockholders generally) will lose every timeunless contracts in place say otherwise. 

In the absence of laws and contracts, the law of the market is “might makes right,” and established, repeat players have all the might.  

Here is a scenario that I’ve encountered far too often (although increasingly less so as awareness has increased) that is almost comical when viewed objectively:

  • A financing has closed, putting in place a “balanced” Board of 2 VC directors, 2 common directors (one of which is a new CEO, the other a founder), and an “independent” director.
  • In attendance at the meeting are 6 people: the Board and company counsel.
  • The 2 VCs regularly syndicate deals with each other and have known each other for a decade.
  • The new CEO is a well-known professional CEO who has worked in several portfolio co’s of one of the VCs, and was “recommended” by that VC for the position.
  • The “independent” director is an executive well-known in the local market who also has worked with the VCs at the table for over a decade, both of whom recommended her for the position.
  • “Company counsel” represents 6 portfolio companies of the VCs at the table, and has represented them as investor counsel on as many deals, and is actually currently doing so for other deals. In fact, company counsel became company counsel because he came “highly recommended” by the VCs when they were first negotiating the deal with the entrepreneur.

So let’s summarize: there are 6 people at the meeting, and 5 of them have all worked with each other for over a decade, regularly send deals to each other, and in some cases (at least with respect to the lawyer and a VC) are currently working with each other on other deals not related to this company. And then there’s the entrepreneur.

Wow, now there’s one “balanced” Board, don’t you think? I’ve encountered entrepreneurs (whose companies are not clients) in this situation before. I let them know that, whatever they think their position at the company is or will be, they are simply leasing that position until their investors, who hold virtually all the cards and relationships, decide otherwise; and regardless of what the common stockholders think. It’s possible things turn out fine, as long as all goes as planned. It’s also very possible they won’t.  But what’s absolutely clear is who decides, in the end.

The difference between a well-advised entrepreneur and the one in the above scenario is this: the former will have real protections in place to ensure the common stock are treated fairly, and have their voice on key company matters. The latter may feel protected, but ultimately their position is at the discretion of their investors; and protection that is contingent on the whims of people on the other side isn’t protection at all.

Well-drafted contracts are, when negotiated in a transparent manner, a key mechanism for controlling the power of sophisticated repeat players who, absent those contracts, can simply force through whatever they want because of their political / economic leverage. What else might this reality tell us about negotiation dynamics in startup ecosystems?

Rushing through negotiations / contract drafting favors established players.

If the default market position gives power to established players, and contracts are a mechanism for controlling that power, the inevitable result is that those established players (at least the most aggressive ones) will try to get entrepreneurs to rush through contract negotiations.

“Let’s just go with what’s standard.”

“It’s all boilerplate.”

“Let’s save legal fees and put them toward building the business.”

“Time kills deals. Let’s get this closed.”

If someone is telling you that what the documents say doesn’t really matter, or that you should just stick to a template, it’s because, outside of the contract, they’re in control.  That doesn’t mean you should burn endless amounts of time negotiating every point, but take the material provisions seriously.

A market ethos of “relax, we’re all friends here” is designed to favor power players.

Old-school business folks know very well how large amounts of alcohol have often been used to seal business deals. In the startup world, alcohol may still be used, but just as effective is fabricating an environment suggesting to first-time entrepreneurs that everyone is just holding hands and singing kumbaya, and being independently well-advised isn’t necessary.

I’m all for having very friendly relations with your business partners. Life is too short to work with people you don’t get along with well.  But any time someone extends that thinking to the point of telling entrepreneurs that “everyone is aligned” and they should let go of the skepticism to focus on “more important things,” I call bullshit. Alcohol and kool-aid; stay sober in business.

“Billion or bust” growth trajectories mean contracts matter less. Outside of those scenarios, they matter more. 

Among emerging company (startup) lawyers, it’s always been well-known that the Silicon Valley ecosystem as a whole takes standardization, automated templates, and rapid angel/VC closings to an extreme relative to the rest of the country/world. I’ve pondered why that’s the case, and in discussing with various market players, concluded that it has a lot to do with the kinds of companies that Silicon Valley tends to target: billion or bust is a good way to summarize it. I wrote about this in Not Building a Unicorn. 

If the mindset of an ecosystem is significantly “power law” oriented in the sense that “winners” are billion-dollar companies, and everyone else will just crash and burn trying to be one of those billion-dollar companies, I can see why the finer details of deal negotiation may be seen as an afterthought. That environment, which is very unusual when compared to most of the business world, leaves a lot less room for the “middle” scenarios – things aren’t going terribly, and we’re clearly building a solid business. but neither is this a rocket ship, and there are hard questions to be decided – where the deep details of who has what contractual rights really matter.

In a heavily binary “unicorn” world, you’re either knocking it out of the park, in which case no one even reads the contracts and just lets you do your thing, or you’re crashing and burning, in which case the docs are just useless paper. As a law firm headquartered in Austin and structured for non-unicorns, we don’t work in that world, and actually avoid it.

For true “balance,” pay close attention to relationships.

In my opinion and experience, the best outcomes result when the power structure of a company (both contractual and political) doesn’t give any single group on the cap table the ability to force through their preferences, but instead requires some hard conversations and real “across the aisle” coalition building to make a major change.

Balanced boards are, on top of other contractual mechanics, a fantastic way of achieving this, when they are in fact balanced. The above-described scenario where everyone except for the entrepreneur knows and has strong economies ties to each other, including a company counsel “captive” to the VCs, is a joke; and sadly, a joke played on too many startups.

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, build diversity of relationships into your Board and cap table. Feel free to let “the money” recommend people, because their rolodexes are valuable, and are often part of the reason why you’ve engaged with them. But you should be deeply skeptical of any suggestion that the preferred stockholders should, alone, decide who the CEO is, who company counsel is, who the independent director is, etc. etc. Letting them do that certainly may get your deals and decisions closed faster, but unless you are successful in delivering a true rocket ship, you will ultimately regret it.

The common stock, including the founding team and early employees, need a strong voice at the table, especially given the power imbalance with repeat players. Well-negotiated contracts and independent, trustworthy company counsel are the way to ensure they have that voice.