Startups · Strategy

How do you know if your startup lawyer sucks?

Chris Leggitt Software Engineer at NextGenInc

October 3rd, 2016

There is no doubt in my mind there are a lot of lawyers out there that have no clue about what they are doing. For startups this is very dangerous. Are there any ways or red flags that would help you find quickly if your lawyers sucks?

Gwendolen Long Senior Counsel, Transactions at Citrix

October 3rd, 2016

This will depend on your legal needs and has less to do with the lawyers' actual skill/knowledge level. A good start up attorney will be able to give quick concise answers to basic questions regarding equity planning, corporate structuring and negotiating financing/licensing agreements. They will respond promptly (same day) and work provided will be neat and simple. There is nothing groundbreaking regarding startup work and it should not take more than minimal effort to update standardized forms to reflect your situation. A good startup lawyers is essential to make sure that you don't make any gaffs that will cost you future investments or reduce the value of your company's assets. They should be self-interested in doing this, as the goal is to get your future bigger business rather than the small amount of fees you will presently generate. If you ever feel like a startup lawyer is trying to make money off of you today, take your business elsewhere. But ALWAYS consult a lawyer before you make any significant decisions.

Annick Fuchs Startup lawyer in the Silicon Valley and Europe, ex Director Legal PayPal

October 3rd, 2016

Ask other another attorney the same question you asked the first attorney. See how they differ and challenge one against the other. You didn't hear this from me :)

Rob G

October 4th, 2016

'ways or red flags that would help you quickly find out if your lawyer sucks': many good suggestions above as to vetting your lawyers. Unfortunately it is often months or years after the fact when you discover that the attorneys stepped in it. They got their bill paid long ago and none of them will admit they screwed up or make it right so buyer be ware. I had a specific situation with a patent lawyer who's mistake i didn't realize until years later when another patent lawyer pointed it out and, of course, charged me to 'fix' the problem ($10k ish on top of the many $10k x 6 or 8 i had paid the original attorney over many years). Once you have hired an attorney the quickest way i can think of to find out if they suck would be to review their early work with a few experienced entrepreneurs then perhaps their lawyers. That sounds like an expensive process, but it should be a "quick way to find out if your lawyer sucks". Like most aspects of entrepreneurship, experience is your best, fastest and most reliable bullshit detector. I had the fortunate experience of working with a pretty talented general counsel in one of my corporate jobs. From small contracts to big ones to M&A and HR issues (this was a large NYSE traded software company). He had some good and some not so good lawyers on his team who i also worked with and it became pretty easy to tell the difference. My division did not get billed hourly for their time, but legal was a line item on my P&L so not using their services didn't save me anything. from that perspective i guess you could say it was free training in how to work with lawyers. In hindsight it was a great learning environment for sharpening not only my 'lawyer' radar, but also my 'legalese' vocabulary, contracts, M&A, HR, IP, legal processes, etc. Now that i do have to pay the legal bills directly i have a much better understanding of what to expect and how to manage lawyers, which is another good way to determine if your lawyer sucks. Search around your network and find a fellow entrepreneur or 2 with finely tuned lawyer radar and ask for their input. There are Lots of good, honest lawyers out there, but also lots of lousy, dishonest ones too. You don't have to settle for a lawyer that sucks. Don't expect your state bar association to filter out the bad actors - they hate to eat their young and only do so in the most egregious of cases. Contrary to popular belief, unlike many professions (doctors, contractors, insurance providers, etc.) your state does not license lawyers, the 'state bar' (the lawyers union in your state) does that. IMHO Avvo, Martindale Hubble, Superlawyers are nothing more than lawyers patting each other on the back so don't expect objective feedback there. Avvo does allow for customer feedback, but the vast majority of feedback seems to come from fellow attorneys.

like any other service provider, you need to know how to manage your attorneys. I prefer small firms (fewer than 20 lawyers but more than 2) for most work (everyday contracts, IP, HR).  M&A and financing i think is more an issue of the individual lawyer.  Sometimes it pays to have the 'big firm' name, but those occasions should be few and far between.  Any attorney who will not meet with you and answer all of your vetting questions is a non starter - don't bother. They may be great at what they do, but if they expect to bill you for the time it takes you to determine if you want to work with them it's not likely to go well. Set very clear expectations as to what you want and what you don't want for each task - if they are the kind of lawyer you want to work with then they will want this too. For example, ask for an estimate or set a limit on the time for each task - 'hey, here's a draft of an agreement we are working on with a customer/vendor/partner, etc. Can you please review and add comments/edits and let me know if we missed any key items. Please give me a time estimate before you begin. If you will not be doing all the work yourself please let me know before you begin". As has been pointed out above, make sure you know who will be doing the work - very common to be 'sold' by the expert partner and then dished off to the green associate, who still bills at $250/hr. Go through your bills and ask questions. Make sure you don't get charged for this. If you get billed for BS ask them to credit you. If it happens again look elsewhere. Scoping hours is harder to do with M&A for example, but hopefully you will have had plenty of time to vet your attorneys before you get to that point.

Johnathan Lightfoot INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY | BOT ARCHITECT | AI

October 3rd, 2016

If they don't seem to understand your industry, is a big red flag to me. One "test" I do during initial conversations is ask them what their thoughts on the industry's direction is.  If they are in tune they will be able to talk to the question with knowledge as well as give me their viewpoints from a legal perspective how my start up may be able to either capitalize or protect itself.

Mark Talaba Founder, Vision Former, serial entrepreneur

October 3rd, 2016

Hi Chris. You are likely find out when it’s already too late. Better to make the first move! Start by searching for a law firm that has a defined ‘Emerging Growth Law’ practice. Here at TGI, we have the good fortune of working with Steve Goodman, founder and head of the the emerging practice at Morgan Lewis. Steve originated this concept almost 50 years ago, and it has proven to be a tremendous advantage - and extraordinarily successful for the firm. The practice model has propagated to many other firms over the years, so if you are near a large urban center, you can probably find one - or a group of - attorney(s) who specialize in working with startups, early stage, and growth stage companies. The benefits can include: tons of experience with both successful and unsuccessful startups (thus, wisdom); current awareness of the local/regional startup environment and relevant legal issues; advantageous legal structure (partnership vs. corp. vs. LLC); connections with the Angel & VC networks and individual investors (which ones are interested in what kinds of businesses); and perhaps even reduced or deferred fee structures. Note: you might find an Intellectual Property law firm that is associated with Emerging Growth practices, or vice versa. Best of Luck! Mark

Barney Kramer Business Advisor, Executive, Trainer & Coach, Public Speaker,

October 3rd, 2016

Get references from other businesses they have served and make sure they are listening. Startup work isn't rocket science and shouldn't cost an arm and a leg! Barney *What a program.* Anyone wanting to take their leadership to the next level really needs to check this out. It is great!!!!! It’s an interactive, multi-media life-changing experience designed exclusively to forever change the way you SEE and GROW your career and businesses. Check it out here: http://smra1.com/seminars/new-leadership-paradigm *"Moving From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be Starts Here"* *S**incerely,* *Barney Kramer, President/CEO* *(209) 444-6549 phone* *www.smra1.com *

Christopher Stanton Attorney at Merchant & Gould

October 3rd, 2016

Investigate. Ask questions. 

An attorney should be smart, experienced, and responsive. The best way to find a good attorney is from a referral by someone you trust. 

Other than that, look for proxies. Smart: What school did they go to, did they graduate at the top of their class, did they go directly from school to a good law-firm? 

Experience: Do they have experience in what you want them to do? Who are their clients? How many (insert document type) have they drafted this month? How many years have they practiced in the field?

Responsiveness: Many attorneys are smart and experienced. In my opinion, the distinguishing factor is responsiveness to you. Do they care about your time/matter? Do they read what you send them? Do they email you back? This is harder to find because many attorneys (who are smart/experienced) have huge clients from which they get consistent work. The key is finding someone who is going to turn your work around in a timely manner. 

Laura Oliphant Business Development and Venture Capital Professional

October 3rd, 2016

The simple answer is that they don't know your industry and the norms in legal terms in contracts. So, they can't help you get to agreements...

Joseph Mahon Client Liaison Officer at Linkilaw

October 3rd, 2016

If you want to go it alone and search for a lawyer then the answers here all provide good signposts to look for. Look for their responsiveness, their willingness to help, their knowledge of the industry, and how clear and helpful their initial advice is. Lawyers are the communicators between you and the law so the best ones will always make their advice concise and easy for someone without a legal background to understand.


You can also look for testimonials on their website, on websites such as Vouched For, or on similar review websites. These will give you a further idea about who you are working with.


On the other hand, you could get in touch with my company, Linkilaw, where our main strand of business is acting as a legal market place to put individuals in touch with the lawyer that best suits their needs. All of our lawyers are pre-vetted and are highly recommended both by their peers and by previous clients. We speak to the client, hear their legal issues, speak to lawyers on their behalf, then relay a selection of the best quotes back to the client, completely no-obligation and completely free of charge. You don’t pay us at any stage of the process - we simply put you in touch with the lawyer that suits your needs.


We are a startup ourselves and completely recognise the importance of getting legal cover nailed down. And, if the legal work you need isn’t too complex, we can do it ourselves in-house for a fraction of the price of tradition lawyers. We’d love to hear from you for a no-obligation chat!


Arthur Lipper Chairman of British Far East Holdings Ltd.

October 3rd, 2016

Ask the attorney for the name and contact detail for the CEO or CFO of the last 3 startups he has formed and assisted in the financing.