I’m going to be honest from the get-go: I hold a legal degree, and I’ve spent a long time advising startups after they’ve already gotten themselves into a small (or big) situation. I’ve worked as both a large-firm lawyer and a boutique lawyer. And I think large law firms are great — I just don’t think they happen to be the right choice for every startup.
That said, as an entrepreneur myself, I’m also a big fan of working with service providers that want to grow with your company.
Getting the right legal counsel for your company is like getting a great base for your startup, but you have to know how to pick the lawyer or firm that will best serve your goals. Here are five questions to ask as you embark on your own search:
1. Do they understand your industry?
My biggest gripe with lawyers is that they often don’t understand their clients’ industries. Many firms are excellent with contracts and document preparation, but if they don’t understand the industry your startup lives in, they aren’t going to be the best counsel for you, because they simply won’t know what to look out for.
So test their industry knowledge a little, and make sure they get your business. We’re in the fashion world at Viciare NY, which means we looked for someone who understood everything from international textile buying to copyrights, manufacturing contracts, and e-commerce. If our legal counsel doesn’t know key industry information, they won’t know what to advise you except what you tell them. And in that case, what’s the point?
2. Have they worked with early-stage startups?
Early-stage startups have very different legal needs from mature startups. For early-stage companies, the focus has to be on building a legal infrastructure for the company; for later-stage companies, the focus is often on securities, funding, etc.
If a firm hasn’t worked with early-stage companies, it may not understand what goes into that architecture. I once worked with a startup that had incorporated a C-Corp in Delaware and then registered in New York as a foreign entity – and, as a result, was paying twice the fees and taxes it would have if it had chosen to register in only one state. It just did what its lawyer said to do, without having the lawyer explain exactly why he/she was advising this course of action. The startup folded after two years and paid taxes even without having made any money.
Remember, a lot of firms work with very established clients. Many don’t have the experience of setting up a business from scratch. Look for a lawyer that understands the inception-to-launch process.
3. Which lawyer will actually be working on your matter?
This is critical, because you may get a great presentation by an experienced partner and find out later that the person handling you as a client is a first-year associate who doesn’t understand exactly what your company does.
Those conversations become very annoying, very quickly.
4. What is their fee structure?
Startups want everything for extremely cheap or for free – especially when it comes to service providers (hey, it’s bootstrapping – we get it!). But when someone starts offering you free legal services, I want you to consider this: What are they getting out of it?
If you can’t find an answer, then there is something wrong with the scenario. Last year, I ran into a startup that was two months away from closing a funding round and was in a panic because its lawyers were now demanding legal fees in excess of $30,000. Until that point, the lawyers had been working on the startup’s matter for a mere $150/hour (a heavily reduced rate). What the startup had not realized was the firm was not bound by any obligation to continue that rate – and exactly when the startup needed lawyers the most, the firm upped the charges.
This is not all that unusual — it’s just rarely discussed. There’s a reason they call us sharks — because lawyers are good at knowing the right time to get what is needed.
So look for legal counsel that is up-front with its fee structure or has a startup package.
5. Do you actually like the person you’re talking to?
This is something we all forget to consider: Do we actually like the lawyer we’re hiring? In any hiring decision, personality matters. If you don’t want to talk to your lawyer more than you absolutely have to, they not be the right person to represent and advise your company. Treat your legal counsel like any other hire.
Benish Shah is the CEO of Vicaire NY, an online e-commerce platform bringing luxury emerging designers to the middle market consumer, and defragmenting the fashion industry in the process.
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