Turning law firm practices on their head to create a legal service tailor-made for startups

This content is sponsored by Shulman Rogers.

In some ways, Goodworld CEO Dale Pfeifer considers her lawyer as the true first partner in her Washington, D.C. software startup, which has built a social impact platform now used by nonprofit and corporate organizations alike.

Her lawyer is Anthony Millin, chair of NEXT powered by Shulman Rogers – the law firm’s practice group which serves startups and emerging growth companies.

“Without him, I don’t think the company really would have started,” said Pfeifer of Goodworld, which she co-founded in 2014. “In those early days, as a solo entrepreneur, having somebody who deeply believes in what you’re doing and not only that but shows up to work on terms of service page summaries and fundraising decks and all of that kind of stuff, is just really, really kind of a crucial building block.”

Gary Skulnik, CEO of Neighborhood Sun, has a similar perspective of Millin and the NEXT practice. “He goes well above and beyond what any attorney would do in offering us advice,” said Skulnik, who has relied on Millin for the legal needs of his community solar business in Silver Spring, Maryland, which aims to make solar broadly accessible and affordable. Millin also provided services to Skulnik at his earlier wind farm company.

“His business background plus his legal experience is a very powerful combination for us, especially as a startup,” Skulnik said. “You don’t always get access to people with so much experience.”

Growing alongside NEXT’s clients

Millin joined Potomac, Maryland law firm Shulman Rogers — not long before he began working with both Pfeifer and Skulnik — specifically to launch NEXT.

As the founder of several companies himself, he knew the challenges of finding affordable legal help that could meet the varied needs of different startups. “I really began to believe and feel that there had to be a better model for delivering legal services,” Millin said.

Generally, startups have two chief challenges when it comes to legal services: gaining access to the right services and managing cost.

“Having regular access to seasoned attorneys — as an early stage startup, you didn’t always get that,” he said. “And be even if you could get it, the hourly prices of the most senior attorneys was so high in the larger firms that it was challenging.”

Millin said Shulman Rogers was an ideal home for NEXT because of the firm’s depth of expertise across a wide range of legal practices and because of its deep legal bench, with many of its lawyers having practiced in the country’s biggest and most prestigious law firms.

“We’ve had them do typical corporate work,” Skulnik said. “But if something comes up on consumer protection, they’ve got someone you can talk to. Something comes up on employment matters, they’ve got somebody to talk to, in investor relations, or if you need help in a mergers and acquisition transaction, they’ve got somebody to talk to. It’s a true one-stop shop — very easy to work with in that sense.”

While the practice started with Millin, today NEXT has a team of dedicated lawyers, paralegals and support staff.

Making legal fees transparent

To help small businesses better plan for and manage their legal expenses, NEXT provides packages of services at set prices.

A startup knows exactly what its legal costs are going in and can plan for future expenses, Millin said. Even in cases where a business might need to go hourly for a very specific need, NEXT will lay out the likely cost in advance, he said.

“It’s so scary as a young startup, when you’re going out and getting little dribs and drabs of money from friends and family,” Pfeifer said. “Anthony came up with these fixed-fee legal packages, and it’s just been such a blessing. … That transparency is not something typical in most law firms.”

Added Skulnik: “You don’t want to ever be in a situation where you’re afraid to call your attorney because you don’t want to get charged.”

The philosophy essentially is that NEXT will provide as much predictability as it can, Millin said. It’s taken a broad range of services, particularly services that are needed early on, and bundled them. That said, it also has packages that include services that arise as a business grows — say, bringing on employees or issuing stock options or raising Series A financing, Millin added.

“The idea here is to raise the bar on services with both education and strategy and yet still offer predictability in the pricing,” he said.

Adding in technology and more

As NEXT has grown, doubling its client base every year since it launched, it has also expanded the range of capabilities it provides. In some ways, it’s begun to function almost like an accelerator. That makes sense because ultimately NEXT wants to help businesses reduce risk, Millin said.

“We become almost like this in-house partner of the startup companies and help them manage and de-risk and scale the legal side of their business — the same way an accelerator may help with product market fit risk,” he said.

NEXT now provides a wealth of tools to its clients. There’s a portal so that clients can communicate directly with the team, reducing the need to make an appointment and come into an office. And NEXT offers access to other cloud-based tech tools that can help its clients too.

“We’re building something new and disruptive and innovative. It’s being done within a law firm, but operates as an entrepreneurial venture,” Millin said. “We challenge ourselves every day to see how we can make every aspect of what we do better and increase its impact and effectiveness for our clients.”

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