WHAT GREAT STARTUP LAWYERS KNOW
April 12, 2012
By Scott Bolin
For many entrepreneurs, talking with a business attorney is worse than going to a dentist—it brings all of the pain, but lacks the closure and the post-appointment goody bag. Yet savvy entrepreneurs know that a partnership with a good business lawyer can be one of the most important relationships for an early-stage startup.
As I spend time working with startups and entrepreneurs here in the Triangle, it’s become clear to me that the truly great startup lawyers understand a few basic principles that set them apart.
Be the Bridge, Not the Troll
One way to think about the challenges of starting a business is a metaphor we in the MBA world call the “Valley of Death.” Imagine a chasm where on one side, there are early-stage ideas—technical inventions or the discovery of a market need—and, on the other hand, there are resources that would allow a company to take off, be it capital, human resources, etc.
Entrepreneurs cross the chasm by identifying challenges and eliminating them, mitigating risks, and better refining their products for the market until, hopefully, their story makes enough sense for someone to invest in them. Resources are scarce, and getting to the other side of the valley takes relentless will to overcome obstacles, a sense of urgency, and the right circumstances. It’s not easy.
Too often, I run into inexperienced lawyers at startup events, and they seem to think that they’re doing a service to themselves by giving a thorough legalese data dump on why a plan won’t work—and leave it there. Others, afraid of being exposed to liability issues, waffle on questions and ultimately waste valuable time.
Great lawyers, to the contrary, understand that entrepreneurs aren’t just looking for answers—they’re looking for solutions. Great lawyers find a way to either come up with a solution or help create an action plan that could get the underlying questions answered.
Business Is Quick and Dirty. . .
My startup mentor recently told me that entrepreneurs must have two qualities: they identify problems, and they get things done. Windows of opportunity open and close quickly, and startups that aren’t constantly moving forward quickly get lost in shuffle. Entrepreneurs want lawyers that are known for timeliness for two major reasons. First, quick (but effective) legal work is ultimately more economical, as it shows the lawyer isn’t learning on the entrepreneur’s dime. Second, it means that when an opportunity window opens, the entrepreneur will be that much more likely to effectively execute.
. . .But It’s Also Relational
The best lawyers I know for startups don’t get clients just because they’re good at “lawyering,” but because they understand that lawyers are uniquely situated to know people from all walks of life, and to make connections. Great lawyers are able to add significant value to their legal services by opening doors that would be otherwise closed and connecting parties that might not have met otherwise.
Scott Bolin is a Blackstone Fellow at the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, a pilot program of the Blackstone Foundation geared at economic development in North Carolina. In addition to his work at Blackstone, Scott is completing his Master of Business Administration at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management. While at NC State, Scott has worked as a consultant to small businesses, specifically helping them with strategic planning and product development. As he finishes his MBA, Scott may start his own company someday, and we at the Forrest Firm aim to stay on his good side.