Paul Banwatt has seen plenty of startups run into trouble. Founder disputes have turned ugly. Business owners have mishandled the termination of employees. And, in one case, a young company had to change its name after an issue arose with its trademark. “That’s a painful thing to see,” says Banwatt, an associate at the intellectual-property boutique Gilbert’s LLP. “Especially for a small company that’s trying to build a reputation.”
Basic legal guidance would have prevented these setbacks, but the legal profession isn’t always set up to serve nascent companies. “Startups have limited capital,” says Banwatt. “They can’t deal with the peaks and valleys of legal costs.” So they often muscle through legal issues on their own.
Banwatt and John Durland, another associate at Gilbert’s, teamed up to solve this longstanding problem. In March, the pair launched Slingshot, an online subscription service that helps startups manage their unpredictable legal costs. For a fixed monthly fee, clients receive a monthly allowance of billable hours, which, if unused, are bankable. This allows clients to redistribute hours from slower months to those that require in-depth legal advice. Their monthly payment, meanwhile, remains the same.
Slingshot subscribers can also access a web portal that houses a suite of legal-document templates, such as employment contracts and intellectual-property agreements. With the help of lawyers at Gilbert’s, these resources are easy to customize. (Banwatt and Durland built the portal alongside the firm’s IT staff, using WordPress and off-the-shelf software.)
The response to Slingshot has been extremely positive. One of the first subscribers was Lumières Media Inc., a recently incorporated company that produces podcasts and live events that explore big ideas in science. “We met with other lawyers, but we weren’t very impressed,” says Raif Douthwaite, a co-founder of Lumières. “The pricing and the approach seemed inflexible, and we couldn’t fork over tons of money.”
Once the company became a Slingshot user, the legal world became a simpler place. The document templates allowed Lumières to formalize its relationship with contract workers. The billable hours have been beneficial, too. Before a live event, one of the speakers worried that her participation would effectively transfer her intellectual property to Lumières. Banwatt and Durland reworked some of the phrasing in the speaking contract so that both sides were comfortable with the arrangement.
“The legal industry is ripe for change,” says Tim Gilbert, the managing partner at Gilbert’s, whom Banwatt credits with fostering the creative environment that made Slingshot possible. “If we insist things happen the old-fashioned way, it increasingly won’t work for a lot of people. And they’ll be flying blind.”
This is a story from our Winter 2020 Issue.