5 questions with Craig Johnson

In 1993, Craig Johnson left Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati with 13 of the Silicon Valley firm’s attorneys to form Venture Law Group, a firm that catered to tech companies like Hotmail, Yahoo and Red Envelope. VLG skidded during the downturn and by 2003 merged with Heller Ehrman.

Johnson spent the last couple of years making seed investments in tech companies. Now the 61-year-old is back as co-founder and CEO of Web-based law firm Virtual Law Partners. The firm’s attorneys—18 and counting—work wherever and whenever they want, using a customized platform that lets them share documents and billing information. VLP’s attorneys, who set their own fees, keep 85% of what they bill clients, Johnson says.

PE Week Senior Editor Constance Loizos caught up with Johnson at his home in Portola Valley, Calif., a woodsy town of 4,500 residents just west of Stanford University.

Q: What did you learn from Venture Law Group that you’re applying to Virtual Law Partners?A: A lot of our DNA comes from Venture Law Group, which had a very strong culture, very high morale and was very non-hierarchical.

But the two firms have different values, to an extent. At Venture Law Group, work-life balance wasn’t a core concern. Also, we had some great success, but also rough times during the Internet bust.

We think in this virtual law model, with very low overhead, the firm could survive any economic event because we’re keeping expenses so low and attorneys are being compensated on their own. We don’t have any large real estate commitments that we’ll suddenly be unable to carry, for example.

Q: Do you think clients might get confused as your attorneys set their own fees?A: The prices are market driven. People have different areas of expertise. We provide informal guidance about what others are charging, but we pretty much let them make their own decisions.

Q: VLG sometimes took equity in exchange for its services. Will that happen with this firm?A: I don’t anticipate it. Also, though we’ll represent tech companies and startups and venture firms, we’re also perfectly happy to just help the in-house department of General Electric. Frankly, over time, a relatively small percentage of our attorneys will be doing startup work.

Q: How much do you expect the firm to grow in one year?A: We’re selectively adding about four attorneys per month. They’re mostly in the Bay Area right now because Northern California is where most of the people who initially came to do this were located. But we intend to grow as a national, even a global, firm. We just want to be sure it grows at a measured pace.

Q: If you were to focus again primarily on startups, what sector would you target?A: Cleantech. That’s for real. There’s no question in my mind that that’s going to be huge.