Why Representing Start-Ups Should Be Like Being in a Jam Band

I guess I went there…  one of the perks of running my own law firm is I can actually be myself and if it’s too weird for a potential client, that’s ok.  I can’t be everything to everyone and I’m cool with that.  So there it is – lawyering for start-ups should be like playing in a jam band. 

I’ll give a very brief background of where this idea came from for some context – I’ve been an avid “phan” since 2003 and I’ve never turned back.  Standing in the middle of 100,000 people at their “It” festival in Limestone, Maine, all synced in perfect harmony (and at times, beautifully dark dissonance) experiencing a collectively conscious moment in time, I had never experienced or heard anything remotely like it.  I was (and still am) a musician and I came home after that weekend, turned my bandmates on to jam music and I was forever a different person.  I immersed myself in Phish, Grateful Dead, Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and a ton of random smaller jam bands that came through Madison, Wisconsin (my college hometown). These days I have a wife and 2 kids so I don’t exactly get to travel across the country to see my favorite jam bands all the time. And that’s fine because life has new joys and their music (and jam music in general) is still an integral part of who I am as a person and yes, as a lawyer.  My brothers and I play jam music a few times a month with our band, The Lichy Nuts (I know... but it was too good a name not to use). And I actually came up with the idea for this post in the middle of a Terrapin jam at Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Brooklyn Bowl show a few weekends ago. 

So what am I talking about?  Why even make this connection?  I could literally go on for hours about this but I don’t want to completely lose your attention so I’ll try and keep it tight:

Jambands Have to Be Skilled Listeners

I put this as the first reason because I think it’s the most important skill a musician and attorney should have and continuously develop.  In order to be an effective advisor and advocate you must listen to your clients(fans).  Successful jamband musicians know this.  Trey Anastasio recently talked about this after Phish’s recent Baker’s Dozen run at MSG: 

“This kind of thing happens: Page is playing the piano and he’ll move to the Rhodes, and I’m just playing and all I’m doing is listening. Like, Mike, Page, Fish. What’s Page doing? What’s Mike doing? In a circle. Page moves to the Rhodes and he plays a riff on the Rhodes, and I might give him just two notes of a little copy or a harmony. And basically what I’m saying is ‘hear you that you’re on the Rhodes, I’m with you.’ That’s it! It’s just the littlest hint, and I know he heard me and know he knows I’m listening. There’s a combination of that and all of that music that we’ve learned together.

It’s like ‘I get it, I’m not fighting you, I’m with you.’ And then the floodgates just open.” (http://liveforlivemusic.com/news/outtakes-trey-anastasio-nyt/)

Similarly, lawyers representing start-ups (and lawyers in general) need to first and foremost listen to their clients.  What are their needs? Goals? Obstacles? Business concerns? What are their dreams?  With start-ups especially, what’s their budgetary constraint?  What’s most important to them right now and what can wait another 6 months?  If you don’t have a basic understanding of your client how can you tailor your services to meet their needs?   

Another reason listening is so key is because start-ups move at a million miles an hour and are constantly evolving, pivoting, adapting, publishing and interacting.  It’s the nature of the beast and what makes starting a business so damn fun.  If you’re not paying attention and listening to the subtle shifts in energy and direction, the jam fizzles out and the magic is gone.  By constantly putting listening as your first priority, your technical skills, knowledge and wisdom will naturally flow into appropriate solutions.  A little cowbell here, switch to a synthesizer, put some overdrive on your guitar and set the gear ship for the high gear of your soul (start-up soul that is).

Jamming and Starting a Business are Dynamic

This is kind of an obvious point but important nonetheless.  Tying in what we just said about the importance of listening because start-ups move at a million miles an hour and are constantly evolving.  Don’t get me wrong – there is definitely something to be said for formal structure.  Most jam songs still have verses, choruses and the occasional bridge but within that framework there’s an exploration of the unknown.  A give and take dynamic that flows from harmony to dissonance resolving back to harmony.  It’s the roller coaster ride of the start-up experience.  When you, as a lawyer, represent a start-up they’ll inevitably need the verses and choruses – the corporate formation documents and starter documents.  Sometimes you get a bridge – IP filings and protection.  And beyond that, sure, you may have a general idea of the types of legal solutions and services your client will need down the road but in 2017 there is no getting around the fact that the rapidly progressing pace of technology and millennially driven explosion of new businesses and business-types forces us to be dynamic as lawyers. 

One size absolutely does not fit all.  That’s one of the problems I see companies getting into when they use online legal services like Legalzoom, Rocket Lawyer, etc… (I’m not knocking those sites – they can have value when used appropriately).  Being a dynamic lawyer means actively listening and reacting to new needs as they arise.  To scoping out the consequences of a new brand activation or what to do if a supplier doesn’t send goods on time.  Does that affect your client’s relationship with its retail vendors?   Who’s liable for losses?  If I was being a dynamic lawyer wouldn’t I have foreseen this?  It’s the energy flow between the verse and chorus sections and the outros where the magic in-between is created.

The Magic In-Between

The magic in-between is why jam bands have cultivated such cultish followings.  It's why fans will see the same band over 100 times and be left wanting for more.  It’s what gives us goosebumps when a band comes out of a 10-minute dark dissonant jam to resolve in a blissful peak of euphoria only to drop back to the main theme with confident force.  I hate to sound like “that guy” but it’s hard to even put in to words if you haven’t experienced it.  It’s magic.  So too, start-ups experience this with their victories small and large.  Founders can be having the worst week ever and then find out that they just secured a brand activation with a top influencer which will get their brand tons of needed exposure.  I’ve been there, literally.  That shift from dissonance to harmonious peak is real.  And it’s definitely not an experience if you can’t bring someone along. 

So when you’re lawyering for humans going through this experience, you have an opportunity to be an active participant in the journey.  If I had to assign an instrument to the lawyer in this situation, it would be probably be the bass.  The glue that holds it together.  While the rhythm and melodies shift keys and flutter between registers of notes, the bass is there keeping everything held down tight along the ride.  And that’s really how I personally look at it when I’m advising my start-up clients.  I get excited when exciting things happen for them.  But I also keep my head grounded and make sure they know the consequences of getting carried away with in-the moment successes.  You just sold $50,000 worth of units?  Awesome.  You want to spend it all on a blogger post?  Calm down, let’s talk this out.  But it’s the magic in-between where those conversations happen and the journey between dissonance and harmony happen.  Once in a while you can get show the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Putting It All Together

In the end what we all want as lawyers is for our clients to succeed.  In order to give our start-up clients the best chance at success we need to provide the best legal framework tailored to their business and needs.  To do that, we need to listen, be dynamic, and navigate the magic in-between.  Do that and amazing things can happen.