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April 15, 2010 2:39 PM

Its Leader Gone, Virtual Law Partners Soldiers On

Posted by Brian Baxter

After the death of its founding partner Craig Johnson last October, Silicon Valley firm Virtual Law Partners needed to transition from a "benevolent dictatorship" to a partnership democracy in order to survive, reports the San Francisco Business Times.

Just like his start-up clients, Johnson was one of Silicon Valley's most innovative lawyers, reported sibling publication The Recorder at the time. His vision for a virtual firm with no headquarters and minimal support staff attracted clients seeking lower rates over big-firm caliber representation, and VLP grew quickly after its founding in 2008. But the stroke that killed Johnson suddenly at 62 devastated the small tech boutique. Among those mourning Johnson's loss was his wife, Roseann Rotandaro, also a partner at the firm.

According to the Business Times, partners at VLP organized a retreat to Santa Cruz, Calif., two weeks after Johnson's passing. VLP partner David Goldenberg told the Business Journal that the goal of the gathering was simple: boost morale and let the firm's lawyers know that Johnson would want VLP to survive without him.

This wasn't the first time that a firm founded by Johnson was forced to adjust to a sudden change. After Johnson cofounded the Venture Law Group with Mark Medearis in 1993, the firm struggled with the collapse of the Internet bubble and eventually was acquired by Heller Ehrman in 2003.

Johnson left the remnants of VLG behind to form Virtual Law Partners in July 2008. (When Heller foundered later that year and voted to dissolve, a team of 35 former VLG lawyers, including Medearis, announced they would join Cooley Godward Kronish.) At VLP, the firm's 14 lawyers would work from home--thus freeing themselves from the trappings of costly office space--and retain only a skeletal support staff. 

But VLP suffered another big blow only six weeks after Johnson's death when cofounder Andrea Chavez left to start her own shop, The Recorder reports. With Silicon Valley insiders wondering whether VLP could survive, Goldenberg told the Business Times that the firm knew it had to become a true partnership in order to continue growing in the absence of its hard-charging founder. In fact, the firm has thrived.

VLP has added new lawyers almost every month since its leader's death, starting in January when the firm recruited insurance partner Chiahua Pan from Morrison & Foerster. In February, VLP added Stephen Lindo, the former chair of the employee benefits practice at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York. And last month VLP picked up Brian Davis, the former head of Alston & Bird's trademark and copyright practice in Charlotte.

The Business Times reports that VLP now has 38 lawyers. And there's nothing virtual about that.

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