Lawyers Present at the Inception
We hear that lawyers need to get closer to clients. Some law firms are trying to take this literally, both in physical proximity and earlier in the client “life cycle.”
One example is Wilson Sonsini, profiled in yesterday’s New York Times. The firm has located a satellite office in a San Francisco district that has a number of start-ups, even in their own building.
Wilson Sonsini partner Yoichiro Taku offers a rather refreshing explanation of one rationale behind this move:
“There’s a marketing benefit [...] It definitely makes us hipper.”
To which I would suggest: even getting this much ink in the New York Times shows a real marketing benefit. And working hip into it is a refreshing sentiment from any large firm lawyer.
Beyond marketing, co-locating offices where early-stage clients are provides other benefits:
1. You get out of the office. Clients are not in or near law firm offices anymore. Indeed, the notion that lawyers spend most of their time in a huge high-rise with 500 colleagues is rather outdated. And that it encourages “collaboration” or “innovation” is wildly oversold.
2. The firm realizes that most prospects won’t be clients. That is fine. For better firms, it is as it should be. But if you help Startup A and their founder introduces you down the road to the founder of Startup B, then you might have something. You are at least part of the conversation, rather than some random large firm with a name that no one can remember.
3. Even the best firms have to acknowledge competition. Wilson Sonsini (and the Venture Law Group) owned the startup scene years ago. When the first tech bubble was building, you would either sole-source the best companies due to your VC network, or offer legal services in exchange for stock. And the firm would have a decent shot at a fast-track IPO to monetize their delayed fees. Now, taking stock for legal services is like getting green stamps: they look great, but are largely worthless.
4. You learn from the source what startup founders want. Wilson Sonsini has been involved with AngelList in the offering of startup legal documents online. Done properly, it has little risk, and you are getting community credibility from people who wouldn’t be clients anyway. So what? Again, they may know someone who will, or may be clients after this venture crashes and a new one rises later. Also, traditional enterprise clients could benefit from newer resources and service options.
5. You learn to charge differently or lose all prospects. Some law firms stay away from startups because they can’t pay the rack rate. Fine. Continue to take the eggs from Fortune 500 golden goose clients. That work is changing, that work is more competitive, and that work, for many large firms, is going away in the next 3-5 years. Wilson Sonsini offers a deferral of up to $5,000 of legal fees for some clients, hoping to work up to normal rates as the startup succeeds. With careful administration of such a program, you are “in the market,” rather than in your high-rise, waxing nostalgic about the glory days of corporate practice.
6. You get to drink beer with real people. Apparently Wilson Sonsini provides refreshments and food at some startup events. Again, out of the office, open-collar shirt, on your feet rather than sitting in the Aeron chair. What’s not to like?
7. You get the leading Law 2.0 catch-phrase associated with your firm. NYT writer Evelyn Rusli got this from Stanford law professor Joseph A. Grundfest: “Small deals would not have interested these firms a few years ago, … Now, it’s the new normal.” Boom! (For more, go here.)
Clients are hard to find; lawyers are everywhere. One place clients are not: in the reception areas of traditional law firm offices.