Portola Valley's Craig Johnson, a pathbreaking entrepreneur, dies


Craig Winfield Johnson was a man attuned to his times.

He signed up for the Peace Corps during its most charismatic decade. When the high-technology revolution got rolling, as a Stanford Law grad with a computer science degree, he got in on the ground floor at a premier Silicon Valley law firm. During the 1990s and the venture capital boom, he founded a law firm with a focus on startups. And as virtual-office technology continues to challenge traditions of work, he co-founded a firm in which lawyers work from home and keep more billable-hour revenue for themselves.

On Sept. 29, just home from a honeymoon celebrating his second marriage, Mr. Johnson died in Stanford Hospital from complications of a stroke. He was 62.

A memorial was held Sunday at the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford University.

A native of Pasadena, Mr. Johnson graduated in 1968 with a bachelor's degree from Yale University, where he majored in computer science and Russian history. His first career stop was Adwa, a small town in Ethiopia, Mr. Johnson's brother Brian told The Almanac.

His stay as a teacher there included getting malaria and, as an American, being the target of stone-throwing Marxists. "That led to his hasty departure," his brother said, but not without a stop in Addis Ababa, the capital, to marry Deborah Kendall, a Peace Corps co-worker.

Back in the states, he worked briefly as a computer programmer, but the computer's charms faded as he considered a career that combined law with high technology and innovation. An uncle who taught at Stanford Law School encouraged him, his brother Brian said.

Craig graduated from Stanford Law School in 1974, his brother said, and was the 14th attorney hired at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, the Palo Alto firm commonly associated with high-tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.

"He so enjoyed working with startup companies," his brother said.

Mr. Johnson left Wilson Sonsini in 1993 to found Venture Law Group, which was "instrumental" in the birth of companies such as Yahoo! and Hotmail, his brother said. He also co-founded Garage Technology Ventures, Concept2Company and Financial Engines.

One of the concepts behind Virtual Law Partners, the Palo Alto-based firm he co-founded in 2008, is sharing revenues more fairly with partners and junior partners, Brian said.

"He was everything about fairness (and) he was very good at articulating a vision that people would believe in," his brother said. At the time of his death, he added, Mr. Johnson was working on refining the business model of a virtual law firm.

Among his outside interests was riding a bike, which he'd done in France, Switzerland and, most recently, in the Slovenian Alps. "He loved cycling," his brother said. "That was one of his releases, to go cycling over the local hills with his great group of friends."

He also loved movies. A favorite was Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."

Every Friday night, the brothers would take their father out for Mexican food, Brian said.

Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife and Virtual Law Firm co-founder, RoseAnn Rotandaro; sons Matt of Seattle, Scott of Minneapolis, and stepson Noah Rogers. His son Erik preceded him in death.

In lieu of flowers, relatives are asking that donations be made to the Craig Winfield Johnson Foundation. Make checks payable to Silicon Valley Community Foundation for the Benefit of the Craig Winfield Johnson Memorial Fund. Send checks to 2440 W. El Camino Real, Ste 300, Mountain View, CA 94040.


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