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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Choose Counsel Carefully

from Marc Averitt





Hi, my name is Marc… and I’m a recovering attorney. Well, maybe I should say “reformed” instead. Actually, while I like to make jokes at my former profession’s expense, a good number of my friends are attorneys (or ex-attorneys) and I am privileged to work closely enough with some of them on a weekly basis so please don’t misconstrue any animosity here. I thought I’d re-post a popular piece I wrote in early 2007 about choosing legal counsel after being inspired by a recent piece by Jason Mendelson titled: Quick Ways to Get Fired as a Lawyer. I strongly encourage you to read Jason’s piece in addition to my spiel below.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some really great attorneys over the past fifteen or so years and would like to spend a few minutes explaining just how important they are to the VC ecosystem and, in particular, to entrepreneurs given the number of questions I’ve fielded of late as to whom to go to for legal service in OC. Rather than try to address each situation that I was presented with here, I’ll answer generally like any good (reformed) attorney and simply say it depends…and then provide you some general considerations when choosing an attorney.

First, I strongly believe that having one or more good attorneys in your corner can really help you at the inception of your new business endeavor and you should get them involved early and often (once you’ve decided on who you want) as they can truly help you avoid the frequent initial mistakes at a minimum. Some will tell you that a good attorney can be worth his or her weight in gold, but I prefer to think in terms of diamonds; namely, the right one can shine as brightly under the right light and should also be chosen based on the “4 Cs”. So, what are they? Simply put, they’re Competence, Chemistry, Collaboration, and Cost and I’ll take each in order.

Competence: You should retain the right attorney for the job based on the job at hand and the attorney’s competence in performing such job. This may seem like common sense, but you’d be amazed at how many people simply use their friend, neighbor, [fill in the blank], regardless of his or her specialty, out of convenience rather hire a domain expert. Doing so can be extremely detrimental to an entrepreneur, especially one in a sector where intellectual property truly matters. For the record, I’m not suggesting you don’t confer with your friend, neighbor, etc that is a litigator or maritime lawyer, I’m simply pointing out that (in my humble opinion) you should consult an expert in the subject matter you need help in. For example, you should consult with a corporate finance attorney with experience in representing start-ups in company formation and financings rather than a general practice attorney who dabble in a number of areas of law. Most good attorneys will be more than willing to refer you to an expert in a particular field when the matter is one off their proverbial reservation. Fortunately, there is a number of competent attorneys right here in OC with a vast array of specialties and extensive experience.

Chemistry: Bottom-line, you need to be able to work with your attorney and to trust him or her implicitly given the nature of the business you will likely be conducting with him or her. If you’re constantly at odds with your attorney, it can hinder your progress as a start-up. Spend some time upfront getting to know each other to see if he or she is someone you can work with. A good attorney will be rowing the boat right along side you and become a true team member. Again, it may seem like common sense but I’ve seen the uglier side of this relationship and it’s a very big distraction at a minimum.

Collaboration: This is similar to chemistry. You need to retain an attorney that not only understands your issues, but can dynamically work well with you to resolve the issues and get the work done. It is also a good idea to choose a local attorney as working with someone from afar on the litany of start-up legal issues can be a challenge and, in my opinion, deprives you from getting the most bang for your buck. It’s much better to be able to pop into your attorney’s office and chat, review docs, etc. than to attempt to do so by electronic means. Choosing a local attorney may also come with the fringe benefit of utilizing his or her offices and conference rooms for meetings with your team, investors, and the like (you know, when you don’t have an office yet and/or are trying to keep your burn down like a good entrepreneur). The other thing to consider here is whether your attorney is part of a larger firm that has a diverse set of practices to grow with you as your company grows. Having said that, I’m reminded of a plaque my father (a career pilot) had on his desk that read something like: “It’s hard to soar with eagles when you’re surrounded by a bunch of turkeys...” so I feel compelled to point out that it’s not always a good idea to rely on a single firm for all your matters just because you like and work well with one particular attorney. Make sure you’re getting the expert advice you need and will be presumably paying for rather than deal with a bunch of turkeys just because they share a nest with your legal eagle.

Cost: Before all you big-firm attorneys panic and think that I’m going to suggest that entrepreneurs simply get the cheapest attorney they can to preserve their much needed cash, relax…that isn’t even remotely close to what I have to say here. I use the term “cost” here but I just as easily could have used the phrase “value exchange”…but it wouldn’t have started with a “C” and would have therefore thrown off my analogy. The value exchange I’m talking about here is simply making sure you receive appropriate value for the money you spend on your attorney (which goes to the other 3 Cs). It can actually be, and often is, more expensive to go with a particular attorney just because he or she is cheaper. How? Simple. A good attorney brings more to the table than just basic legal service. He or she has presumably worked with a number of companies you might want to work with but are unaware of, know a variety of capital sources, know a number of potential employees that you’d be interested in hiring, etc. Additionally, a really good attorney will help you avoid some common mistakes with respect to incorporation, patent prosecution, equity/debt financing, etc. that a lesser attorney may inadequately do. Avoiding such initial mistakes can save you money in the long run and ultimately prove to be cheaper for you overall. So go forth you brave entrepreneurs, lawyer-up, and build great companies here in OC.

Marc Averitt is a Co-Founder and Managing Director of Okapi Venture Capital (www.okapivc.com) and is responsible for Okapi Ventures' information technology investments. Marc also maintains a personal blog about venture capital in and around Orange County at http://ocvcblog.com, where this was originally posted.

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