How to find and hire a great startup lawyer
Making the best choices for your high-growth business is a lot easier with the expertise of a startup lawyer. Even though founders know it’s important, when it comes to finding lawyers who specialize in startups and deciding which one to hire, many founders are at a loss.
Because a good lawyer can help a startup find its direction, navigate the market, and make game-time decisions, in addition to preparing documents and keeping records, picking the right one to work with can be make-or-break for your business.
Where to find a startup lawyer
Most founders know they need to find a lawyer, but actually finding one can be very daunting. Like any other precious resource, startup law expertise tends to be concentrated in certain places, but you’ll need to know where to look.
Like hiring, connecting with investors, or finding a decent barber, the first and best option for finding a startup lawyer is a network referral. Asking other founders, investors, advisors, and startup aficionados who they’ve worked with in the past can give you an important signal about reputation, as well as a few introductions. Often, other startup-ecosystem service providers, like consultants and accountants, will be able to point you in the right direction as well.
The second place to turn is online search and social media. Attorneys who focus on startups are more likely than average to build an online presence, for example by sharing their expertise on Q&A sites like Quora and law-specific forums. Founders can sometimes find reviews of startup lawyers through search as well. Looking for other similar classifications of services, such as “emerging growth” and “emerging businesses,” in addition to “startups” can help you cast a wider net.
Next, seek out the local startup law community in person by going to events and meetups. Law firms frequently host startup-centric events, often advertised on platforms like Eventbrite and Meetup. These are usually free or inexpensive (under $10) events that let you get a feel for the lawyers that work in that practice group, and the discussions and presentations can also be helpful in understanding which areas of law your startup will want to be aware of. Even startup events that aren’t law-specific will usually attract some startup law talent, since startup lawyers are just as much a part of the ecosystem as founders.
Another good signal that an attorney or law firm caters specifically to startups is that they sponsor a local angel group or other startup-oriented civic organization, like the New York Tech Alliance. Usually, this means the law firm represents startups, and sometimes the relationship to the angel group can work out in a startup’s favor (although you should be on the lookout for conflicts of interest). You can easily find angel investor groups in your area through Gust.
How to evaluate a startup lawyer
Before engaging an attorney for your startup, asking the following will help you and your lawyer set appropriate expectations and avoid future misunderstandings.
- What are the attorney’s areas of expertise? Make sure the attorney has experience helping companies like yours and can provide you the appropriate deliverables. For example, if you need to look into filing a federal trademark application, you might want to look for attorneys with past experience helping similar companies file trademarks.
- Does the attorney understand your business model? It’s important for your attorney to understand how your company operates, so they can provide timely and helpful advice. The better your attorney understands your company, the better they’ll be able to tailor their services and expertise to your unique situation.
- Can the attorney help you think through how your legal needs change as your company grows? If the first two questions have been satisfactorily answered, ask your attorney to give you a better understanding of how your legal needs will grow over time. This will help you prepare and plan as your startup makes progress.
- What are the attorney’s rates? Do you understand how much your attorney’s time costs? This is critical to understand before you authorize an attorney to provide work for you. Understanding billable rates lets you forecast your legal costs and plan accordingly. Additionally, you should ask how the law firm will bill you, so you know what to expect on your bill and how long you will have to pay it off.
- Does the firm have specific packages for startups? Some firms have packages they offer specifically to startups that include basic legal services a startup will need (trademarks, employment agreements, terms of services, NDAs, etc.).
In addition, you’ll want to ask yourself a question to make sure you’re ready to engage an attorney:
- Do you understand the attorney-client relationship? Attorneys are ethically bound to represent their client’s best interests. Be sure you understand what your attorney’s ethical obligations to you are. Also, understand that you, as the client, decide what work will be performed. An attorney will always ask for your consent (usually in writing) before starting any work. As you begin the relationship, be sure to read all your communications with your attorney and understand what work (and costs) you’re agreeing to have them perform for you.
Above all, your attorney should be a value-adding resource for your growing company. This list of questions is certainly not exhaustive, and you may have other special circumstances that lead you to additional questions. However, having answers to these questions before you engage your attorney will make you more comfortable with the relationship and help prevent some unwanted surprises later.
This article is intended for informational purposes only, and doesn't constitute tax, accounting, or legal advice. Everyone's situation is different! For advice in light of your unique circumstances, consult a tax advisor, accountant, or lawyer.