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Craig Johnson, the visionary Silicon Valley lawyer who founded Venture Law Group and more recently Virtual Law Partners, died Saturday after suffering a stroke. He was 62 and had just returned from a European honeymoon with his wife and law partner Roseann Rotandaro. The two had married on Aug. 15.

Johnson was perhaps the quintessential Silicon Valley startup lawyer. He had an unbridled enthusiasm for new ideas. Just like his entrepreneurial clients, he pushed the boundaries of traditional business models in law practice. And he was always onto the next big thing.

"He was constantly innovating, constantly thinking of new ideas and new systems dealing with startup law," said Larry Sonsini, chairman of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. "Every time I saw him he was working on something new -- it was very much an 'on the back of the napkin' type of thing."

Johnson inspired a loyal following of lawyers and clients at Wilson Sonsini, where he started his career in 1975. But when he set out to found Venture Law Group in 1993, there was great skepticism that a law firm focused only on corporate startup work would succeed. The firm exploded with the tech boom, growing rapidly to more than 100 lawyers, and raking in millions with its investments in clients like Yahoo and Hotmail.

"Craig was a pioneer in Silicon Valley, and his vision helped drive the growth of the technology industry," said Jerry Yang, co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo, in an e-mail.

Venture Law Group stumbled when the bubble burst and was acquired by Heller Ehrman in 2003. After a few years outside the practice of law as a venture capitalist, Johnson again had a new idea: a virtual law firm on a grand scale. Last year, he launched Virtual Law Partners. His idea again met with skepticism, but in just a year, the firm has grown to 40 lawyers. And it has been hailed as the law firm of the future.

"He may have been a lawyer, but he was an entrepreneur at heart," said John Dean, a close friend and venture capitalist at Startup Capital Ventures.

Dean was one of the first people to find Johnson after he suffered a stroke last Tuesday morning at the office they share in Palo Alto, Calif. He was rushed to Stanford University Hospital, and was surrounded by his family until his death on Saturday.

As news spread Monday, Johnson's former colleagues reached out to each other over e-mail and in the hallways of law firms, like Cooley Godward Kronish and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe where many Venture Law Group lawyers now work.

"He was kind to everyone and he knew everybody's name and knew their families and their history and he really went out of his way," said Don Keller, a former VLG lawyer now at Orrick. "Everyone that knew him felt they had a special friend in Craig."


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