Some of the venture-backed companies that turn to Foley & Lardner for legal counsel may find themselves tacking a new title onto the law office’s partners: investor.
The firm, which has a substantial office in the District, has formed its own venture fund after raising $4 million from partners around the globe. The money will be doled out in small amounts to clients that first attract outside capital.
Foley’s decision to create a fund comes as a wider array of financiers emerge post-recession.
Venture capital dropped off considerably during the economic downturn when many investors fed existing portfolio companies rather than add new ones. As the market churns again, those investors are now wading back into the water, along with angel networks and corporations.
“Corporate venture capital is on the rise but those arms are typically housed at large corporations,” said Emily Mendell, a spokeswoman for the National Venture Capital Association.
But while law firms’ funds may not play a large enough role to register nationally, observers say that they are not uncommon, particularly among firms that represent technology companies or have offices in tech-rich hubs such as Silicon Valley.
“There are quite a few law firms who are in this business who have internal firm funds, and it’s always seen as a positive. It’s seen as what it means to be a player,” said Gabor Garai, the chairman of Foley’s private equity and venture capital practice.
Cooley, for example, has maintained an in-house venture fund for more than 25 years. A partner there declined to comment on the size of the fund or the firm’s investment approach.
Foley’s fund will provide $50,000 to firms that secure funding from a professionally managed group of angel investors. The sum jumps to $100,000 when the outside money comes from a venture capitalist.
“We do all kinds of work, and one of the things that we heard is these companies want their lawyer to have some skin in the game,” Garai said. “We always want to be their partners, we always want to be part of their inner circle, and they say, ‘If you want to be part of the inner circle, we want you to invest.’ ”
The sums are small compared to what a more traditional investor might spend, but Garai said the shared economic stake helps to align the interests of lawyers, investors and entrepreneurs.
It may also give the firm added appeal to those seeking representation. David Sanders, an attorney in Foley’s District office, contributed an undisclosed sum to the fund. “It’s a unique proposition and a unique niche that I think we can provide some great services to some start-ups in addition to providing them some cash,” Sanders said.
A lawyer who also acts as an investor could raise conflict-of-interest questions, especially when the lawyer is likely to help negotiate the terms of a potential deal. Garai said such conflicts would be minimized by the relatively small size of the investment. The firm would abide by whatever agreement the client and major stakeholders reach.
“That addresses a number of issues like conflict of interest or preferential treatment . . . and also frankly it takes the whole process of lawyers sitting around and trying to make a decision about investments out of the picture,” Garai said.
The first four companies to receive funds hail from Washington, Boston, San Diego and Madison, Wis. They operate in industries as varied as material science, social media and medical devices.
“At the end of the day there was an investment strategy underpinning this in that we are making relatively small investments in a diverse portfolio of companies,” Garai said. “It’s that very diversity that makes it a good strategy.”