When David Goldenberg, JD ’96 (BA ’93), was a young Morrison & Foerster associate, he spent long hours and late nights on dull but essential research that helped senior partners execute massive deals.
Burnt out, he took a sabbatical and mulled a career change. The firm paid him by the hour for sporadic legal work, and his attitude was transformed. “I started being happy about taking calls on a Saturday because that meant money,” says Goldenberg. “I was excited about client service in ways I wasn’t before.”
Fifteen years later, the San Francisco-based corporate attorney remains enthusiastic about his work. Unable to find a firm that espoused attorney independence, value, and flexibility—the very attributes that reinvigorated his passion for law—he helped launch one. Today, VLP Law Group LLC has more than 50 attorneys in 11 states. VLP is a virtual practice, untethered from a glass-and-steel site but connected to clients and to one another through technology. Attorneys can work wherever they like and whenever they like.
They are as experienced as their Big Law counterparts and, indeed, many, like Goldenberg, are veterans of marquee firms. But they pride themselves on being more responsive, more nimble, and more affordable. Working in polo shirts and jeans, VLP attorneys handle intellectual property issues, tax matters, and M&A deals.
“Overhead is so low compared with a traditional firm,” says Dan Burke, JD ’93, a VLP partner based in San Diego. “Our attorneys charge rates that are probably half of what they’d be charging at large firms, but you’re keeping such a large percentage of your collections. You’re still going to make a very good living, even if you’re working half the hours.”
The firm’s founders—Burke, Goldenberg, and Craig Johnson, JD ’74—envisioned a law practice that would eliminate the oppressive overhead that forced traditional firms to regularly hike their hourly rates. Founded in the Bay Area eight years ago with 10 lawyers, VLP is one of the oldest virtual practices and appears to be one of the larger ones.
Goldenberg and Burke credit Johnson, who died suddenly in 2009, with the visionary thinking that propelled the firm’s creation and anticipated its growth. Johnson was right, Goldenberg says: “You don’t care where your lawyer works. You care that your lawyer knows what he’s doing.”
Robert Schlossman (BA/MA ’90) has used VLP attorneys for contracts, M&A, and privacy compliance issues at three companies. Now chief legal officer of Zscaler, Inc., a San Jose cloud-based security company, Schlossman says he’s delighted to tap seasoned counsel for far less than traditional firms charge. VLP Group’s client list includes tech and biotech companies, investment firms, and Stanford University, which uses the firm for patent work.
Nonetheless, virtual firms represent a small percentage of practices overall. About 5 percent of the roughly 800 lawyers responding to a 2015 American Bar Association survey on legal technology described their practices as virtual. About 10 percent of solo practitioners surveyed said they had a virtual law practice.
Stephanie Kimbro, author of Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online (2nd ed., 2015), suspects the number of virtual firms might be greater. Some of the lawyers surveyed said they were unclear on whether their practice was virtual. Others might have been reluctant to admit that they live in one state but practice virtually in another, where they’d been admitted to the bar, said Kimbro, a former fellow of Stanford Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession.
The number of virtual law firms is expected to mushroom over the next decade as older generations of attorneys are replaced by millennials, who readily go online to shop, bank, socialize, game, and research.
A suite of high-tech software gives VLP’s lawyers the same operations capabilities as a traditional firm. Attorneys have 24/7 tech support, billing that is handled through a central accounting system, and a full-time support staff of paralegals and administrators. VLP Group has invested heavily in document management and review software that allows collaboration and sharing. The lawyers access, store, and edit documents via a secure portal they can access across multiple devices. Files are backed up in the cloud. The legal team builds and maintains camaraderie through bimonthly video conference calls.
Other benefits include health insurance and a 401(k) plan. Lawyers don’t get paid vacation time, but they can take off when they like, says Cathryn Chinn, JD ’84 (BA ’79), VLP’s CEO, who’s based in San Carlos, California. All work full time, with some billing 2,000 hours a year and others logging half that.
That flexibility, coupled with no commute or dress code, reduces lawyers’ stress and frees them to focus on their work. “There’s not an expectation you’ll have face time to show partners or others that you’re in the office during normal 9-to-5 working hours,” says Burke, a former Latham & Watkins lawyer and general counsel of IPWireless. “You’re really mostly accountable to your clients and just making sure you’re getting the work done.”
VLP Group doesn’t aim to be all things to all clients. “Where you’re doing a public-public merger and need to throw 10 bodies at something over a weekend and put 200 hours into a deal in two days, we’re not really set up to do that,” Goldenberg says. “That’s not what our firm is about.”
Developing a firm culture and nurturing fellowship among such a far-flung group takes dedication. Fantasy sports leagues, regional get-togethers, and twice-a-year in-person meetings help forge and sustain relationships.
“I’m working with the happiest, most contented group of lawyers—and lawyers are not necessarily of that ilk,” said Chinn, a former corporate and securities attorney who has winnowed her professional wardrobe to a single suit. “It’s a great way to work.”
June D. Bell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The National Law Journal, VC Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and various alumni magazines including Harvard Law, USC Law, and Stanford Lawyer.