Lawyers are Slow, But Firms Shouldn’t Be

TL;DR Nutshell: Don’t be fatalistic in assuming that working with good lawyers always means slow response times. But also don’t delude yourself into thinking that any particular lawyer, if she’s good, will be immediately available for your every need. Asking the right questions about responsiveness up-front will prevent a lot of frustration in your startup’s relationship with its lawyers.

In my discussions with founders re: what they look for in hiring lawyers for high-growth, investor-backed startups, I’ve found that everything usually boils down to 4 criteria (often in the following order from most important to least, but not always):

  • Quality— Top founders usually have a strong understanding that (i) decisions when the Company has $5K in the bank account can (and often will) have a material impact on the business when its hit $20MM ARR, and (ii) cleaning up legal mistakes is orders of magnitude more expensive than doing it correctly the first time.

Quality is typically the main reason that startups ‘upgrade’ from generalist lawyers. See: Startups Need Specialist Lawyers, But Not Big-Firm Lock-In

  • Trustworthiness/ Like-ability — Your lawyers will be (or should be) close advisors working with you on the most high-stakes, strategic decisions of your company’s lifecycle. That relationship will get dysfunctional quickly if you can’t trust them, or simply don’t like them as professionals.

Trustworthiness is typically the main reason startups switch lawyers/firms from those that their lead investors insisted they use. See: Why Founders Don’t Trust Startup Lawyers

  • Efficiency — Hiring good lawyers, like hiring good developers, will never be cheap. It’s a basic law of markets that top talent requires top compensation. That being said, there are a lot of ways that founders can ensure that their legal budget is paying for great lawyers and not for expenses/overhead that isn’t actually resulting in better value.

Efficiency is typically the main reason startups avoid, or stop using, very large firms with billing rates 4–5x of what top lawyers require in compensation. See: How Startups Burn Money on Startup Lawyers

  • Responsiveness — This usually comes last because many founders have, through frustrating past interactions with the legal profession, come to the conclusion that ‘dealing’ with lawyers inevitably involves long wait times. Sort of how I brace myself every time I have to enter a specialist doctor’s office, because I know a 9:30 appointment, which was scheduled weeks ahead of time, usually means actually being seen around 11.

Send your lawyer an e-mail and expect a response in 3–4 days, if he’s not too busy. That’s just what it takes to work with good lawyers when you’re a small startup with a modest legal budget, right? The big fish have their attention most of the time, so just get in line… It doesn’t really need to be this way. Understanding 3 concepts related to lawyer economics will help you avoid this scenario:

1. Appreciate institutional bandwidth — and why, for speed, firms > solos.

If recruiting and motivating top lawyers requires competitive compensation, then with basic math you’ll see why great lawyers who work with early-stage startups must work with many startups, not just yours, to get paid. Good startup lawyers are busy people, because maintaining a strong portfolio of work allows a lawyer to get paid well without burdening any particular company with an excessively large bill.

However, while a solo lawyer who is very busy will have only one thing to tell her client when they need something done quickly — “wait” — lawyers in firms have institutional bandwidth. If I’m busy, and I often am, I have other lawyers (and staff) in my firm who can be assigned to keep work moving. Properly run law firms know how to manage bandwidth and ensure that work is “spread” throughout their roster, without a loss in quality. This allows great lawyers to stay busy (required for compensation), without burdening clients with ridiculous wait times.

This point is, however, related to a second important concept:

2. For your primary counsel, hire a firm, not a lawyer. But size of practice area matters more than the size of the whole firm.

The old adage “hire lawyers, not firms” has a lot of truth in it, but that truth only applies with the right factual backdrop:

  • It’s usually said by in-house general counsel, who themselves maintain a roster of specific lawyers (at various firms) that they can task on projects to manage bandwidth. Founders do not have this, and trying to build it for them would be a waste of time.
  • It assumes that there is something very unique about a particular lawyer that you need that others in her firm cannot provide. If you are doing cutting edge niche legal work that is unique to your particular market — like perhaps a patent lawyer with a very deep understanding of your special technology that no one else on the market has, this may make sense. For general startup/vc law, this is flatly not true if the firm you’re working with maintains proper standards and training for its roster of lawyers.

Of course, your primary contact with a firm will be a specific lawyer. But if you want to avoid waiting days, or even weeks, for something as simple as a response to an e-mail, you need legal bandwidth, and that means a firm. Expecting a specific lawyer to handle everything you need is the fastest way to ensure you are going to wait a long time for that lawyer’s attention, unless you’ve got several hundred thousand dollars a year in your legal budget for him. That’s called “in house counsel.”

But take note: there are a lot of law firms with 500, 1000, even 2000 lawyers who are incredibly slow. Why? Because they don’t actually leverage institutional bandwidth. A lot of those lawyers inside these large firm are either (i) in completely unrelated practice areas and hence aren’t actually available to help your particular lawyer (useless to you), or (ii) working in silos (just sharing a brand) with no effective mechanism for collaborating with one another. There are deeper reasons behind this “silo” problem that span issues like technology and compensation structures, but that’s too deep for this post.

Keeping dozens of different specialties of lawyers under the same firm is massively inefficient — to use econ jargon, we can call it “diseconomies of scope.” But within a specific practice area, there are very large efficiencies — shared technology, training, templates, institutional knowledge, and access to client information — that a focused firm has over a bunch of independent lawyers. That’s why the specialist ecosystem that MEMN leverages is made up predominantly of specialized boutique firms, not solo lawyers (although there are those as well), each with their own institutional bandwidth within their practice area. See: The Tech Law Ecosystem v. BigLaw.

3. Don’t hire an M&A or IPO Lawyer who uses startups as lead gen. Hire a startup/vc lawyer.

There is a massive difference between a lawyer who focuses on M&A (large exit transitions) and simply pursues startup clients as lead gen for very large deals v. a lawyer whose focus is startups and venture capital. The technology law firms that have very good response times have segmented large exit transactions as a specialty that operates alongside, but separate from, emerging companies corporate work. On top of improving response times, this results in better startup/VC lawyers and better M&A lawyers. Find one of those firms.

Compare these two lawyers:

  • Lawyer A is assisting this month on (i) a formation, (ii) two seed deals, (iii) a Series B and Series C financing, and (iv) a $500MM acquisition.
  • Lawyer B is assisting this month on (ii) a formation, (iii) three seed deals, (iii) 2 Series A financings, and (iv) a Series B and Series C financing.

If you’re a startup client w/ one of those seed deals or VC financings and have a question, or you’re just a client with a quick question on a new hire, who do you think is more likely to respond promptly to your e-mail? Lawyer A, because of the fundamental fact that large, high-stakes, fast-paced exit deals tend to consume lawyers’ attention (for understandable reasons, big fees at stake) is going to take a lot longer. Hire Lawyer B over Lawyer A, and just ensure that Lawyer B’s firm has M&A specialists for when you need them… or hire Lawyer A and take a number.

Recap: Startups move fast. It is extremely frustrating to founders when their lawyers can’t keep up. That doesn’t mean you should expect McDonald’s like responsiveness — these are highly skilled, busy professionals managing a portfolio of clients, not your in-house assistants — but if it takes days to even get a response to your e-mail, there’s an underlying problem that should be dealt with. For primary corporate counsel, find a firm with lawyers who focus on early-stage/emerging tech work, and with institutional bandwidth within that specific practice area.

And if you want the truth on how responsive a group of lawyers are, there’s no better place to go than that firm’s client base. Believe me, if a founder CEO is frustrated with the responsiveness of her lawyers, you’ll have zero trouble getting her to talk about it.


Originally published at Silicon Hills Lawyer.