The boring genius of how Atrium kills legal busy work
Law firms have little incentive to build or buy software that will save their lawyers time because they often bill clients by the hour. Tasks like tracking down legal documents, extracting key information and drawing up hiring offers or funding term sheets add up to make lawyers expensive, even if they’re constantly repeating mindless busy work.
That’s why legal startup Atrium is so exciting — even though it’s developing tech that might seem boring on the surface. After raising $75 million from Andreessen Horowitz and General Catalyst while growing to 400 clients, today Atrium is announcing its first customer-facing products.
Atrium Records creates a collaborative file locker for you and your lawyer so you always have access to the latest versions of corporate documents. Atrium Hiring automatically generates hiring offers and contracts from details you add to a form, and tracks everyone’s approvals and signatures.
Rather than having to pay for these tools separately, they come as part of a subscription to a bundle of Atrium’s legal services, with special projects like counsel through an acquisition costing extra. This business model incentivizes Atrium to work as efficiently as possible instead of bilking hourly rates, and build tools to eliminate less-skilled work or assist with common corporate duties. That’s allowed it to speed up legal work on incorporations, financings, M&A and contract negotiations.
“One of the reasons we partnered with Andreessen Horowitz on the last round [a $65 million Series B] was we really align with the way they approach venture capital,” Atrium co-founder and CEO Justin Kan tells me. “Marc’s initial observation was . . . let’s not just provide capital but also other services like a talent network. We have kind of done the same stuff. Not only are we helping people with the legal stuff they want to get done but with the other stuff surrounding it.”
Atrium CEO Justin Kan at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017
For example, Atrium’s Fundraising Concierge service provides assistance to startups for defining their narrative, setting up investor meetings and generating fair term sheets. Atrium has to date aided startups with raising more than $1 billion, from seed rounds of $200,000 to huge $50 million rounds
Developing drab but useful software for enterprises is a drastic shift for Kan. He pioneered life vlogging by strapping a camera to his head at his startup Justin.tv that eventually blossomed into Twitch and sold to Amazon for $2 billion. It’s been quite an adjustment for Kan going from making video-game-streaming consumer apps and angel investing to Atrium. “Two years. It has been an interesting and crazy ride. I wanted to get back to starting companies. That was the fastest learning I’d ever had. But I forgot learning means failing a lot,” he says with a wry smile.
Whatever tribulations they required seem worth it now that Atrium’s new products are ready. Atrium Records improves on the clumsy status quo where clients have to dig through emails from their lawyers hoping to find the most up-to-date versions of important corporate documents. If they can’t, they wait around after emailing their lawyer who has to hope they remember where they buried that term sheet or cap table in their firm’s file tree. This messy process can rack up billable hours, lead to data mismatches and let important signatures or approvals fall through the cracks.
Kan says he’s seen some grisly situations. “You never signed your equity documents so you actually have no equity in this company. And now that there’s financing, there could be a taxable event. There’s often surprisingly serious problems that happen.” Atrium’s senior product manager Sahil Bhagat walks me through how Atrium can help clients avoid an issue like, “Maybe you hired 10 employees but didn’t update your cap table and then you’re hiring the 11th employee but you don’t have any equity to grant so you have to go through the hassle of increasing your options pool.”
Atrium Records acts like your searchable legal Dropbox. The startup works with your last law firm to ingest your documents around equity, taxes, employees and IP, and make sure they’re all up to date. Machine learning extracts critical data about financings and cap tables so that’s instantly available in the Atrium dashboard and you don’t have to dig into the original docs. Plus, you don’t have to pay for lawyers or paralegals to do that manually. And your lawyer can build a task list of documents for you to edit or sign so you always know what to do next, which is a relief when you’re wrangling approvals from all your existing investors.
Atrium Hiring operationalizes one of the biggest founder time-sucks. Instead of writing hiring contracts from scratch each time, you fill out a form and use menu selections to set the salary, share count, vesting schedule and offer expiration. Looking across its anonymized data set of contracts, Atrium can recommend the best clauses and most common set ups, like four-year vesting with one-year cliffs. You can see the status of the contracts every step of the way, from drafting and finalizing to getting employees to accept.
Kan tells me Atrium’s goal is to continue building on its archive of more than 100,000 legal documents to develop aggregated pools of data clients could opt into. If they’re willing to share their salary data, vendor contract pricing and more, they’ll get access to that of Atrium’s other clients. “You’ll be able to see if you’re on the high end of being paid by Salesforce for a contract,” Kan explains. That’s a much more data-driven approach than when most lawyers just think of the last few salaries they saw for that position and give you a rough average.
“Being able to tell what the market norms are is a powerful negotiating tool.” The startup has even been offering its tips for free as part of fundraising workshops it uses to attract clients. The challenge for the company will be ensuring efficiency doesn’t mean cutting corners.
Atrium has grown to 150 staffers split between legal practitioners and its product team in its two years since launch. Kan is trying to build a culture where everyone cooperates, unlike infamously cutthroat law firms where partners can compete for cases. He hopes that talent will stick with Atrium because it’s deleting the most tedious parts of their jobs. “No one wanted go to law school to review 1,000 hiring docs.”