Exposure. It does little good to be a Top Lawyer if nobody knows about it. This can happen organically because word of good legal work will get around and will beget more legal work. Whether it happens by accident or design, Top Lawyers are known.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Royse.
Roger Royse is a partner in the Palo Alto office of Haynes and Boone, LLP and practices in the areas of corporate, securities and tax law. He works mostly with Silicon Valley tech startups and venture capitalists, has held leadership and honorary positions with the ABA and other organizations and universities and is a nationally recognized authority on agtech — the technology of food production.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I became a lawyer because, as a kid, whenever my dad, a small business owner, had a problem, he would call a lawyer, who would solve the problem. They were like shamans, knowing the secrets of the business world that could make things happen. I started my career in a rural agricultural area, worked with western North Dakota oilmen, Wall Street investment bankers and Hollywood studios before deciding that the future belonged to tech startups. I moved to Silicon Valley in 1991 and have been working with emerging growth and venture capital since.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
I work mostly with tech startups handling formation, financing and M&A. Given my tax background, my deals are more tax sensitive than those of most venture capital industry lawyers involving, for example, foreign founders or companies. I also do some fund formation and partnership and corporate tax advice and planning.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Three essential qualities required to succeed at law include:
- Hard Work. The law is a jealous mistress. Clients are demanding and deadlines don’t wait. I have never known a successful lawyer who did not work hard. Top Lawyers do not aspire to a 4 hour work week and do not shirk having to roll up their sleeves and putting in the effort.
- Expertise. Professional knowledge and skill are fundamental to success in law. Without expertise, none of the other factors will matter. Successful lawyers acquire technical competence and never stop improving, developing and learning.
- Value. While the hourly rates may (or may not) be high, the value delivered must always be much higher. This is especially true for those who work by the hour since it is easy in an hourly model to focus on the effort expended rather than the value of the product, when the two factors might be unrelated.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
Here in the Silicon Valley, we all know that luck plays a role in startup success and the success of anyone in the ecosystem. Fortunately, conditions are right here for great things to happen. I have been very lucky to surround myself with top-tier, team oriented professionals in complementary disciplines, including the top notch attorneys I work with.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I graduated from the University of North Dakota Law School. At the time, I did not expect that I would ever leave my home state so it did not occur to me until years later that a more well-known school would have provided me with more options starting out. However, I believe that I would have ended up in the same place no matter which law school I attended. Part of my journey included founding and growing the Royse Law Firm from a solo practice to 27 lawyers over 15 years. During that time, I hired graduates from law schools at Harvard, Stanford, NYU, Virginia, Northwestern, Berkely, UCLA, San Diego, Peking U. and many others and I observed little correlation between choice of law school and likelihood of success at law practice. The success factor is much less tangible than that.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
I would have spent less time advancing someone’s else’s vision of a law practice. I would have launched my own firm earlier and insisted on a perfect platform for what I do best. I am fortunate to be with a firm that fits my fast growing clients’ needs well but it was a long road to get here. I also would have reached out sooner and more often to those who have been where I was going in both law and professional services generally. I eventually learned how invaluable experience is and wish I had known then what I know now.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
To help build world changing companies. In Silicon Valley, where I practice, nothing is impossible. On almost a daily basis I see companies launching huge ships and tackling gargantuan problems. I see companies that, if successful, could end world hunger, stop climate change and extend human lifespans, maybe indefinitely. Nothing is impossible and they all need lawyers.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am doing a lot of work in Ag-Tech, the technology of food production. It is amazing what the future of food will look like and I have a ground floor, front row seat. I see similar revolutions in healthtech, energy tech and blockchain.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
At the firm I founded (the Royse Law Firm), I launched many future unicorns and decacorns but did not have the infrastructure to service their legal needs as they grew. I joined Haynes Boone about a year ago to be able to stay with my fast growing startup clientele from idea to exit. The next stage of my career will see me and my team staying with our client companies as they become household names.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I have many, and you can read about them in my upcoming book, 10,000 Startups: Legal Strategies for Success, which will be out by Christmas. My greatest success story is a common one that plays out frequently in this valley — an immigrant founder with small money and big dreams arrives in Silicon Valley. He suffers failure after failure, but then finally makes a sale, obtains an approval, secures a patent, or otherwise proves a concept to the satisfaction of an investor. He or she then goes on to change the world.
My most humorous is the brilliant inventor who got a meeting with a VC to talk about his chip technology, but decided instead to use the opportunity to pitch him on his real interest — time travel. Not even Silicon Valley will buy that.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I am on a hybrid system and I believe that will be the standard for the future. Clearly, law is becoming more tech enabled and that allows for more mobility. I do not think the completely virtual office will ever become the standard way of doing law because this is a relationship based business, and that requires face time. But the model is changing.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
Covid may have rushed what was inevitable — a more tech enabled law firm. There are still many other pressures that are much more threatening to traditional law firm models. Online services have replaced much of what lawyers and most of what paralegals used to do. Outsourced providers have put pressure on the lower end and deep learning and AI tools are chipping away at the upper end of law. We are seeing public ownership of law firms in some countries. The profession of law is turning more and more into the business of law. Ironically, this makes fundamentals that much more important. Legal judgement will be the last bastion of the human lawyer before the robots take over and we all look for other things to do.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes it is still true today and always will be. Virtual meetings have their benefits, i.e. they can be very efficient and allow a lawyer to easily reach many people but there is something about face time that cannot be replaced.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Hire a professional. Social media requires technical knowledge that lawyers do not have. Do NOT outsource content however. Whatever you say must be in your unique voice.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
Here is my top 5 list of things you need to be a top attorney:
1. Expertise. The number 1 factor is knowledge and skill. Without technical excellence, none of the other factors matter. The top lawyers acquire the needed skills and never stop improving on them.
2. Hard Work. The law requires long hours and hard work. My first years included many all-nighters and 7 day work weeks.
3. Exposure. It does little good to be a Top Lawyer if nobody knows about it. This can happen organically because word of good legal work will get around and will beget more legal work. Whether it happens by accident or design, Top Lawyers are known.
4. Value. While the hourly rates may (or may not) be high, the value delivered is always much higher. This is especially true for those who work by the hour.
5. Clients. Clients get the lawyers they deserve and vice versa. Top Lawyers have great clients doing big things.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
It’s a tie and I have met and talked to both of these people before.
Elon Musk. His belief we are likely just simulations bothers me, and I want a chance to change his mind and convince him we are real.
Elizabeth Holmes. I met her years ago at a party and she seemed like every other founder I have ever met. I would like to know how things could have gone so horribly wrong and understand what her advisers might have done better to walk her back from the cliff.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!