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16 Lies of Lawyers

Listen for these all-too-common phrases--and then take them for what they really mean.

Like CEOs, marketers, engineers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, lawyers tell their own specialized tall tales. Most of my experience is with lawyers who do work for tech entrepreneurs; here are some whoppers I've heard.

  1. "I'm really excited about what you are doing and will give your company my personal attention." Once someone gets to the partner level, making it "rain" is as important as doing "work." This is part of a stand-ard sales pitch, so don't let it go to your head.

  2. "Our firm is really excited about what you're doing, so we'd like to invest in your company, too." This is also part of the standard sales pitch. Most firms invest in most of their startup clients--it's simply the law of big numbers: Invest in enough dumb ideas, and one will turn out to be a Google.

  3. "We can work on the billing so that you pay us when you get financed." Consider this the final flattery in a good sales pitch. As with the others, don't think you're special. This is a common offer.

  4. "I'll have that to you by the end of the day." The important question for you to ask when you hear this is, "End of which day?"--every day has an end. And you should find out how your lawyer defines the end of the day: 6 p.m. or 11:59 p.m.

  5. "Don't worry about the date on that option grant; it's not a big deal." Unless you enjoy getting indicted, you should run from a lawyer who utters such stupidity.

  6. "The bill would be lower if it weren't for the lawyers on the other side." You do realize that the lawyers on the other side are saying this about your lawyers, too, right?

  7. "I thought you were more interested in getting it right rather than saving a few dollars." In other words, the legal bill for your Series A funding may exceed the amount of capital raised.

  8. "Your case is much stronger than theirs; I'm sure we can persuade them." If your position is that strong, you don't need lawyers. It's when your position is weak that you need them. Also, your opponent is hearing the same thing about his case.

  9. "We have relationships at the highest level in Shanghai/Munich/Mumbai/New York City/Los angeles." In other words, someone from the firm once flew first class to Shanghai/Munich/Mumbai/New York City/Los Angeles with the vice premier's uncle's sister's nephew.

  10. "We'd much rather be on the company side than on the investor side." Let me get this straight: Your lawyer would rather be on the side of two people in a garage who are raising $500,000 than a VC fund managing $500 million whose partners play golf at the same country club?

  11. "We usually don't bill the full retainer; it only happens if there are unforeseen issues that come up." One of two things is happening: Either you've been sandbagged with an artificially high estimate, or your lawyer just passed the bar.

  12. "Sure, we're busy, but I'll make sure you don't get handed off to a green associate." Translation: Your main contact passed the bar a year ago.

  13. "I've done work with Google/Microsoft/Apple, so I know how to structure deals with them." Translation: "My favorite search engine is Google, which I use on my Windows PC while I'm listening to my iPod."

  14. "We think you will have a very strong patent." If you hear this, ask this question: "So if Microsoft infringes on it, we'd win?"

  15. "We know the opposing attorneys, so we'll be able to work out something quickly and cheaply." This is like asking the hotel concierge what restaurant he recommends. There is usually no such thing as quickly and cheaply. There's only "good and expensive," "quick and lousy" and "cheap and lousy." Pick one.

  16. "I can call several venture capitalists to help you secure funding." Actually, you should select your lawyer as much for his connections to the VC community as for his legal expertise. However, take this very literally: He "can" call--this is different from "will" call.

Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop, a managing director at VC firm Garage Technology Ventures, former chief evangelist for Apple Inc. and author of eight books--most recently The Art of the Start. Visit his company's site, alltop.com.

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