By Daniel Doktori and Sarah Reed (culled From hbr.org)
It’s a startup shibboleth that entrepreneurship and formal education don’t mix. For icons such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, so goes the lore, finishing a bachelor’s degree would have only stifled the creativity that fueled their companies to stratospheric success. PayPal founder Peter Thiel offers a $100,000 fellowship to “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Graduate degrees are thought to merely exacerbate the problem of too much thinking, too little doing. And while high-profile efforts by top business schools to teach and promote entrepreneurship have lessened the stigma around the MBA, the law degree continues to occupy a unique place of villainy among the startup set. After all, YouTube, Uber, and Airbnb, among many others, were founded on ideas that challenged, if not broke, laws and regulations. When it comes to a tech startup, lawyers are a bug, not a feature. Right?
Maybe not. Lawyers can add value in the obvious ways, helping to avoid early mistakes like issuing stock too late in the game, when the company has grown in value and the employees can no longer take advantage of favorable tax treatment. But more importantly, a lawyer on the early team can contribute to a thriving company culture by asking the right questions at the right times, providing perspective on crucial transactions, and getting smart fast on issues where the rest of the team lacks expertise.
Lawyers help startups deal with common transactions and avoid costly mistakes.
Issuing equity to the early team often triggers time-sensitive filings with the IRS. Successfully commercializing a product depends upon clean and clear lines of intellectual property ownership. Raising outside financing requires compliance with complex securities laws. A misstep on any of these items could mean an early exit for a startup company (and not the good kind). A corporate lawyer with a few years of relevant training can help navigate these and other common set-up requirements.
Moreover, lawyers, particularly corporate transactional lawyers, have repeated exposure to the types of deals — and the associated risks — that a startup will face. The dynamics between a CEO and the investors on her board are a function of the legal arrangements articulated in the financing agreements. The relationship between a company and its customers stems from a license agreement governing how users may interact with a product. Partnering with a larger company in a similar industry can, in the best case, open new markets or, in the worst, box a company into a corner, severely limiting options for growth and eventual acquisition. Lawyers understand these transactions and the perspectives of the negotiators involved.
And when the complexity of the particular deal exceeds the expertise of the lawyer on the team, she can play the savvy procurer of legal services, knowing how to target efforts and limit costs. Such experience comes in handy in managing other third-party service providers such as bankers, accountants, and consultants.
While these benefits are valuable, however, they don’t in and of themselves justify a startup hiring a full-time in-house lawyer. Early stage companies — at least those with founders sufficiently experienced or savvy to recognize that they walk a road pitted with legal potholes — tend to manage such standard risks by hiring outside counsel. And while the costs associated with that outside attorney often rank among the highest in a startup’s budget, they do not typically rise to the level of a full-time annual salary. To justify her presence among the first dozen employees, a lawyer must add something beyond legal knowledge to the equation.
Lawyers are trained to ask the right questions at the right times.
Counterintuitively, lawyers can add the strategic absence of knowledge. President Harry Truman famously longed for a “one-handed economist” when presented with the equivocating analysis of his advisers, but executives in politics and business need to understand opposing viewpoints in order to make informed decisions. Legal education and training includes a strong emphasis on questioning assumptions and probing for further information.
Rather than crippling the company through risk aversion and overanalysis, however, having a lawyer on the early team contributes to a data-driven, analytic culture of thoughtful decision making. Further, lawyers are trained as advisers and service providers. They can ask questions, explore options, and execute on answers, but they don’t expect to make the final call. This comfort with playing a supporting role helps avoid the egocentrism that can cripple any organization, particularly a nascent one.
The lawyer’s craft sometimes can be boiled down to a willingness to immerse herself within the “fine print,” offering to read what no one else will on account of complexity, length, or sheer dryness. Trained to ensure that even simple advice is backed by evidence, lawyers read closely to the point of comprehension as a matter of professional responsibility. Such a skill enables a lawyer to take responsibility for a wider variety of important matters. Fledgling startups inevitably have to rely on analysis over experience. Lawyers fit well in such situations.
Not every lawyer is well suited for the gig, however. A lawyer with the qualifications outlined above needs a tolerance for risk. For one thing, she must be willing to give up her plush office and lucrative salary for a computer station at a long table and compensation in the form of prayers, otherwise known as stock options. Her professional risk tolerance must follow suit. An essential attribute of a business attorney is providing “risk-adjusted” advice, and the level of tolerable risk for a startup generally far exceeds that for a Fortune 500 company. Lawyers at startups need to recognize that a workable answer today is often preferable to the perfect answer tomorrow; hand-wringers need not apply.
But risk tolerance must be accompanied by a stiff spine in situations where the company’s momentum (and the CEO’s vision) hurtles on a collision course with the law or the company’s outstanding commitments. In these cases, a willingness to speak up is one of the many things lawyers can bring to the table.
Daniel Doktori is the Chief of Staff and General Counsel at Credly, a digital credential service provider. He previously represented startup companies at WilmerHale, a law firm.
Sarah Reed is the Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of MPM Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in early-stage life sciences companies. Previously, she was the general counsel of Charles River Ventures, an early-stage technology venture capital firm.