George Grellas on Deferring Legal Fees

George Grellas posted the following in answer to a question on Hacker News about deferring legal fees.  Like all of his writing it’s well thought out and based on a wealth of practical experience. It’s posted here with his permission

Be cautious about deferred fees in dealing with lawyers. These have their legitimate role in the world of startups but, as with any other form of “easy credit,” they can wind up costing you far more in the long run than if you simply negotiate good rates or fixed fee amounts for work you have at hand.

For example, this piece discusses fee deferrals up to $30K. How would this work?

A typical deferred-fee deal provides that a startup will get corporate legal services of up to x amount that are deferred for some fixed time (say, 6 months) or until the company does its first funding at some minimum amount (say, $1 million), whichever comes first. In exchange, the startup gives the law firm a small piece of equity for the credit extension. If the startup fails in its business, the founders are not personally liable for the cost of the legal services and the law firm eats the loss (this is the credit risk it takes for which it gets equity in exchange). If the startup does not fail, the bill comes due in time and must be paid.

Now, a few observations from one who has done such deals many times over from a lawyer perspective:

  1. The deferred-fee deal is a beautiful fit for the type of go-for-broke, hope-to-massively-scale company that will depend heavily on VC funding. You team up with a few co-founders, set your company in motion, and let it fly. You get heavily diluted up front when the VC funding comes in at $5 million and up, the burn rate for the company is high, and you go all out with a prestige team to build that billion dollar company (or at least hundreds of millions). You hire a law firm that bills $500/hr and up even for green attorneys and that works in teams. A simple company formation is $5K and up; your convertible note round is $5K to $10K and up; your Series A round is $50K to $60K and up. And, if it all works, all this gets paid from VC money. If it flops, you owe nothing. In a way, then, this is a risk-free way as a founder to go for broke in launching an ambitious venture.
  2. Now consider a bootstrap venture or an angel-funded venture where the founders delay outside funding until they can build a credible pre-money valuation in hopes of minimizing dilution. Unlike the VC-funded case, you will here want to be much more cautious about what the legal services will cost. In most such companies, it is easy to get through the first 6 months of the company’s history (a typical deferral period) without coming anywhere close to spending $30K on a legal budget. Company formation can easily be done in the $2K-$3K range for the vast majority of such companies; bridge notes for $3K or so; Series A often for $5K to $10K. Maybe you also need Terms of Service and other miscellaneous items (e.g., trademark applications). Thus, if you add up all the typical legal needs of such a venture, you might get up to the $10K range in the normal case if you spend your money wisely.
  3. The temptation, then, with a deferred-fee deal is to spend on legal matters with greater abandon given that you are using “easy credit.” This made sense historically under the VC model. It makes less sense under the modern angel model and even less sense for a company that is going the purely bootstrap route.
  4. When it comes to deferred-fee deals, then, it is important to count the real cost. It may be a good step for your company but make sure the fit is right for your venture. A decade ago, this was a near-ideal arrangement for most startups with quality founding teams. Today, it makes sense for some but probably not for most quality startups.
  5. Bottom line: if a deferred-fee deal looks attractive, then, by all means do it. Just don’t treat it as an axiomatic good. Like most easy-credit arrangements, the ultimate cost to your company (even if not to you personally) may be quite a bit higher than what it might otherwise be if you focus purely on the market cost of the services.

Watch your dollars and especially when someone offers you something that seems to be all upside (when it is not).

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