Q&A with Fenwick FLEX Lawyer Chris Vail

November 30, 2011

Chris Vail, an attorney with the FLEX by Fenwick Program, was recently interviewed for The Recorder article "Q&A: Fenwick FLEX Lawyer Chris Vail." This question and answer style article covered Mr. Vail's role as an on-demand in-house counsel for multiple emerging companies through the FLEX program at Fenwick & West LLP, as well as the development of the program during its first year.

In October 2010, Fenwick & West, through the efforts of the "co-founders" Ralph Pais and Alexandra Smith, launched its FLEX by Fenwick program to provide temporary in-house counsel to emerging companies in need of more active day-to-day legal guidance than law firms can typically provide cost-effectively. Over the past year, the FLEX program has grown to 20 attorneys and has worked with over 30 clients on a wide variety of matters.

Prior to joining the FLEX program, Chris Vail was general counsel of a large public company and several start-ups. His general counsel experience makes him an ideal candidate to handle fast growing companies that need sensible business and legal advice, and FLEX gives clients a way to flexibly meet their legal needs as their businesses grows.

As Mr. Vail noted, the typical FLEX client is not a very early stage start-up. Rather, FLEX clients tend to be "rapidly growing companies that have done at least one round of venture financing, or have received significant angel financing. They're at the point where they're beyond their proof of concept and they’re generating revenue." Pais and Smith decided to focus on this segment of the start-up market because it was "an underserved market" where "big firms were too expensive" and, because of the incredible growth these companies generally experience, "solo practitioners [have] limited bandwidth" to serve the client.

Vail said that he typically represents three to five clients at one time, with the goal of providing "the experience a client would have with an in-house lawyer" by "go[ing] deep into the client's business." He said that most of his work involves the "day-to-day business of helping these companies make money and build relationships, and taking the company from a small, disorganized startup to a more mature business."

When asked why cash-strapped startups should spend money on attorneys, Vail commented, "Every business that's growing needs legal support to do deals and generate revenue" and that, for better or worse, lawyers are necessary in order to "make people keep their promises." But, because they are cash-strapped, for many of these companies, it wouldn't make sense for them to hire a full-time general counsel yet, so the FLEX program helps solve the existing legal need while allowing companies to focus most of the dollars spent in the crucial growth areas of the company. As Vail noted, "Typically these companies are at a stage where they're going to hire the next engineer or salesperson before they hire their first lawyer. And they're typically not at the stage where they have a sufficient volume of work to justify a full-time legal resource."