If you have to nix an idea for whatever reason, suggest an alternative idea that achieves the same objective...
Whether in-house or outside counsel, here are five basic skills that startups actually need from their lawyers:
1. Get to the point – and quickly.
Put away your bluebooks from law school; they have no place at a startup. Your peers have no time for legal memos or long-winded explanations. Lead with your answer, provide some reasoning, and call it a day. More contentious issues will obviously require more thoroughly reasoned arguments, but those will often be around a boardroom table, and will not happen through written memoranda.
2. Don’t just say no.
Nothing makes the marketing folks or the sales team more frustrated than when legal says “no” to a great idea. In fact, saying “no” is the surefire way to ensure that they do not run plans by you in the future. If you have to nix an idea for whatever reason, suggest an alternative idea that achieves the same objective. Lawyers get a lot of flak for being the “no” men; we need to do a better job of saying “no, but let’s do this instead…”
3. Be the legal expert. And the business expert. And the compliance expert. And the everything expert.
When I am invited to meetings, at some point, someone will inevitably ask, “So what do you think, Debbie?” Although I like to think people really want to know my opinion, my team is really vetting their ideas through me for legal/compliance/business approval. My job is to bring all that expertise to the table, and it’s my job to make sure I am always issue-spotting, asking questions, and doubling-back to ensure rules are followed.
4. Develop negotiating/mediation skills.
I spend an exorbitant amount of time negotiating with customers and employees, and one of the reputations I am most proud of is that when people get “stuck,” they come to legal for help. Our team has set the expectation that we are a go-to resource for mediation and negotiation among and between people in and out of the company. We turn documents back in a timely manner and are rarely – if ever – the bottleneck in getting deals done. In fact, we are often the lubrication between attorneys at other companies and their own business folks. Having these skills is a tremendous value a legal team can bring to any startup culture.
5. Translate legal jargon and startup speak.
I spend a good part of my day explaining legal jargon to business folks and technology terminology to lawyers. Being able to break down the importance of “termination for convenience” to a salesperson or software-as-a-service to a traditional attorney is not only appreciated by individuals who are trying to get a deal done in their non-native language, but also demonstrates a fluency of concepts that is appreciated by various stakeholders. The ability to not only master difficult concepts but also to explain them in laymen’s terms to others is one of the most important assets an attorney can bring to a start-up.
[Debbie Rosenbaum is Corporate Counsel for Thismoment, Inc., a cloud-based marketing software startup based in San Francisco. Debbie has her JD/MBA from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. Debbie tweets at @rosenbaum_tm and more info on her can be found at debbierosenbaum.com.
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