In Memoriam: Craig Johnson, Virtual Law Partners

Craig Winfield Johnson, who played a role in the formation of Silicon Valley’s tech, legal and VC communities, died from a stroke suffered Sept. 29. He was 62 years old.

Johnson was a graduate of Yale University and a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Ethiopia. After he graduated from Stanford University law school, he joined Wilson Sonsini advising startups.

In the course of his career, he founded two law firms. He founded Venture Law Group, which represented Yahoo, Hotmail, WebTV and other notable Silicon Valley tech startups before it merged with Heller Ehrman in the wake of the dot-com bust. Most recently, Johnson launched Virtual Law Partners, a Web-based law firm that cuts down on overhead by allowing attorneys to share documents and back-office processes and keep 85% of what they bill, compared to the 33% kept by associates at conventional law firms.

In addition, Johnson co-founded the incubator Garage, the online retirement planner Financial Engines and numerous other tech-related startups, according to Virtual Law Partners.

Guy Kawasaki, managing director of Garage Technology Ventures and co-founder of the incubator Garage, said that Johnson was “a wonderful supporter of technology entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley will be much poorer because of this loss.”

In an interview a little over a year ago with PE Week, right after he started Virtual Law Partners, Johnson talked about the importance of having an ethical culture that also nurtures people, his plans to promote good citizenship in the firm, and his efforts to maintain balance in his own life by getting in bike rides and parties and movies.

He said that he didn’t expect most lawyers in the firm to spend their time on startups as the firm matured.

“My main observation about what’s happening today is that you can’t have a situation forever where something goes in goes in and nothing comes out,” he said. “It’s been six or seven years now and except for a few aberrations like Google, there’s been no meaningful liquidity. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a crisis in the venture industry, but…”

If he were building startups now, he said, he’d focus on cleantech, “That’s for real. There’s no question in my mind that that’s going to be huge.”

Memorial services were scheduled for Oct. 11 at the Stanford campus. Friends were planning a memorial bike ride around the Stanford campus and Palo Alto and Menlo Park, passing Wilson Sonsini and other places where Johnson lived and worked. The group of bike riders were planning to attend the memorial in their bike clothes.

Virtual Law Partners’ management will appoint an interim committee to take over Johnson’s role until a new CEO can be named, the firm said.

“VLP benefits from incredibly talented and experienced attorneys across many practice areas. We will work together with our senior partners to fulfill Craig’s vision of building a radically new law firm that provides outstanding legal service to corporations, at reduced billing rates, through a virtual model,” COO Cathryn Chinn said in a statement. —Deborah Gage