Guest column

Lawyers specializing in startups are hard to comeby in Houston — but here's what you need to know

You need a specialized lawyer for your startup — but that's easier said than done in Houston, according to this expert. Getty Images

One of the worst, and most expensive, mistakes that we see startup founders make in the very early days of their company is not realizing that hiring lawyers is a lot like hiring doctors: when the stakes are high, you need a highly experienced specialist.

Law has numerous specialties and sub-specialties, and hiring legal counsel with the wrong specialty can mean paying to reinvent the wheel, or simply getting advice that is out of sync with the norms of your industry and the expectations of your seasoned investors.

This challenge can be particularly acute for founders of startups located in Houston. The legal market in any particular city tends to mirror the dominant industries of that city. Houston has some of the world's most prominent energy and healthcare lawyers, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Houston's economy.

Startup lawyers, or more formally —corporate/securities lawyers who are sub-specialized in "emerging companies" — are a different story entirely. Given the nascent status of Houston's startup ecosystem, finding local lawyers who work with emerging technology companies and early-stage funding day in and day out, and know all the norms and nuances, is a challenge.

Very often we see founders get referred to a local lawyer who is a broad generalist that dabbles lightly in many practice areas. Their lack of depth in startup or venture capital work usually leads to clients paying for things that a more specialized lawyer, with a deeper set of precedent forms and institutional knowledge, could simply pull off the shelf. In other cases, founders get referred to very expensive senior corporate lawyers from firms designed for billion-dollar public company representation; totally overkill (and overpriced) for an early-stage startup.

What the smartest Houston founders discover, if they do their homework, is that leveraging the broader "Texas ecosystem" can help not just with sourcing talent for their employee roster or finding venture capital, but with sourcing specialized legal talent as well. In the case of Startup Lawyers, Austin's venture capital and startup ecosystem has produced numerous highly specialized lawyers whose depth of startup/vc experience easily compares with lawyers found in Silicon Valley, but who also regularly interact with investors in the Houston market; and therefore know their expectations. In the case of our firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), a significant number of our clients are located in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other markets in the general regional area.

Historically, businesspeople have assumed that if they really want top-tier, highly specialized counsel, they had to find that counsel at large, multi-national law firms. That is no longer the case. The broader Texas ecosystem has produced a thriving group of specialized, high-end "boutique" law firms that are recruiting top-tier lawyers away from the traditional mega-firms, and leveraging technology to deliver "leaner" legal counsel; saving hundreds of dollars per hour for entrepreneurs.

It is not uncommon for us to see Houston startups utilizing an emerging companies corporate lawyer in Austin, a regulatory specialist lawyer in Houston, and a tax lawyer in Dallas; all from different firms. This is the future for how emerging companies will source their legal talent, without the constraints of geography or old-fashioned "all in one" law firm structures.

This trend really isn't that new. VCs from Austin and other Texas cities (and the coasts) have regularly been visiting Houston to fund companies, and Houston companies have regularly leveraged contacts in other markets to source specialized resources for their companies. The same dynamics have extended to finding legal counsel. "Localism," and an over-preoccupation with hiring everyone in the same city, isn't really just last year, it's more like last century. There is nothing about legal services for startups that requires any of your lawyers to be within your same city. Videoconferencing works great.

The growth of the Texas ecosystem, and the emergence of specialized boutique law firms, mean that Houston entrepreneurs have far more options to choose from for sourcing specialized legal counsel. Leverage those options to avoid engaging lawyers who are insufficiently experienced, or overkill, for the needs of your company. For more resources on finding and assessing the right lawyers for your Houston startup, see Startup Lawyers, Explained.

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Jose Ancer is an Emerging Companies Partner at Egan Nelson LLP. He also writes for Silicon Hills Lawyer, an internationally recognized startup/vc law blog focused on entrepreneurs located outside of Silicon Valley, including Texas.

The oil and gas industry has been hit by a trifecta of challenges. This local expert has some of his observations. Getty Images

In the matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 disrupted life across the globe, but the oil and gas industry was hit especially hard with the triple impact.

First, there was the direct impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Next, there was a dramatic drop in global demand as countries and cities around the world issues travel restrictions. Finally, there was a global increase in oil supply as OPEC cooperation disintegrated.

As energy companies raced to set up response teams to address all three concurrent issues, something that no one was quite prepared for was the speed at which all direct lines of communication for the industry were shutoff. Seemingly overnight, industry conferences and events ground to a halt, corporate offices were reduced to ghost towns, and handshakes were replaced with virtual high fives.

To fill this inability to interact, connect, and collaborate as we used to, my company, Darcy Partners, stood up a series of executive roundtables for the exploration and production community to come together and share ideas on how to approach this unprecedented series of events.

Each week, over 25 executives from various oil and gas operators (and growing) gather virtually to share best practices around COVID-19 response plans, discuss the broader impacts of the turmoil on the industry and learn about innovative technology and process solutions others are implementing to help mitigate the impact of the virus and associated commodity price volatility.

We've seen the priorities of these executives shift and evolve with each phase of COVID-19 and the market impact. In early discussions, the main focus was on taking care of their workforce and what plans were being instituted to help minimize the disruption to operations while also ensuring that no one was exposed to any unnecessary risks. Participants shared best practices and policies they had in place for communication both internally and externally as well as their transition to work-from-home.

At later roundtables, the discussion turned to commodity prices and market response. Although this industry is quite accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs, this time is notably different. The market dynamics during this cycle are far more pronounced than in past downturns – largely due to the concurrent supply and demand imbalances coupled with the broader economic uncertainty. Most operators are taking action by making cuts, and some have already decided to shut-in production. Additionally, the importance of technology and innovation came to the forefront, whether discussing tools to facilitate working from home or remote operations to ensure the continued safe operations in the field.

The future is largely unknown; all of the information and analytics and millions of outcomes being modeled do not create the full picture needed for leaders to make the difficult decisions that are necessary. But there are a few things we know for sure. First, there will be an oil and gas industry on the other side of the current turmoil. Secondly, technology will play an increasingly important role going forward. And, finally, the complex issues the industry is dealing with today can be more effectively understood and managed by coming together to share ideas and best practices.

Nearly 5 years ago, Darcy Partners was founded on the premise that there was a missing link in the oil and gas Industry for the adoption of new technologies. Today, there is a missing link for an entirely different reason. Darcy Partners has rapidly mobilized our vast network of operators, technology innovators, investors, and thought leaders to come together and create a shared level of certainty, in an entirely uncertain world. To help leaders make the decisions that must be made and prepare for a new future, one that might not have been expected, but one that the industry will evolve to succeed in.

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David Wishnow is the head of energy technology identification and relationship management at Houston-based Darcy Partners.