Law and Small Business & Startups

Law firm sees growth in startups

April 22, 2015
TAGS Varnum
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Law firm sees growth in startups
Scott Huizenga. Courtesy Varnum

A law firm with a 125-year history is committing resources to target businesses that are just starting out.

Despite its lengthy history and size, Varnum still sees itself in the fledgling businesses that come knocking on its doors for legal help.

Tom Kyros, Varnum executive partner, said the firm, which has roughly 160 attorneys, recognizes its own history and wants to help other business ventures get off the ground.

Varnum's focus on startups has led to a practice group devoted specifically to startups and emerging businesses.

A lot of the work Varnum does for its startup clients involves intellectual property, trademark and licensing work; work that helps a new business get on the best path to turn a new idea and vision into a successful venture.

“One of the things that is often at the center of it is the taking of the idea and the putting together of an entity in which it can be done, an investment structure in which that entity can flourish and contracts that allow them to do what they are doing,” explained Scott Huizenga, Varnum managing partner.

MiSpringboard program

The firm takes great pride in the more than 150 startups it has helped as part of its MiSpringboard program, which it started four years ago as part of its commitment to turning Michigan into a startup haven.

MiSpringboard is a statewide program designed to remove some of the barriers associated with starting and growing a business by providing free legal services to new business initiatives.

Varnum committed to provide $1 million worth of free legal services to startups across the state during a five-year period as part of the initiative. Each participant is able to receive a minimum of $2,500 in legal services, tailored to suit its particular needs.

To date, the firm has provided $500,000 of its commitment.

“I think it’s beneficial for the state and the region,” Huizenga said.

He noted it's one more incentive to encourage entrepreneurs to build their business in Michigan, rather than another state.

“It really has been good for us in many ways,” Kyros added.

Kyros said many of those 150 businesses have gone from pro bono clients to paying clients as they’ve grown. He noted even after the firm hits the $1-million mark, it may extend the program due to the success it’s achieved.

“Over the last four years, we’ve seen several of them become good-sized companies,” noted Tamara Bergstrom, Varnum marketing manager.

Investing in Detroit

In addition to the MiSpringboard program, Varnum has also been focusing on the growth of entrepreneurs in the state, particularly in Detroit.

“We believe we are the firm of choice for entrepreneurs in this state,” Huizenga said. “We want to be part of what is going on in Detroit, and we have existing client relationships and attorney relationships there.”

Up until recently, Detroit clients were served primarily by attorneys working out of Varnum’s Novi office, which has grown substantially. But as the firm was evaluating whether to expand that office or open another, it decided it was time to have a committed presence in downtown Detroit for its growing client base there.

“Our Novi office has done very well. It's very full,” Kyros said. “Maybe a year and a half ago, we started talking about the need to either expand there or expand elsewhere in southeast Michigan.

“We evaluated whether to open a second suburban office, maybe north of the city, or downtown. We . . . really liked the energy of downtown and this entrepreneurial, startup spirit. That was our determining factor.”

Varnum also has offices in Kalamazoo, Grand Haven and Lansing and holds regular office hours in Detroit at the M@dison Building, which is located at the corner of Broadway and Woodward, which is part of the firm's MiSpringboard program.

The Detroit office will open later this year in the Federal Reserve Building, at 160 W. Fort St. The firm will take over the building’s entire fifth floor. Up to six attorneys from the Novi office will be moving into the new location.

More growth coming

Even with the addition of the new offices and attorneys relocating, Kyros said the Novi office remains near capacity.

“We are probably going to be expanding in Novi before too long,” he said.

The firm added 17 people in 2014 across all of its offices and expects to add the same number by the end of this year.

Varnum had a financially successful year in 2014, due partly to its work with startups, and early this year, the firm’s policy committee took part in a retreat where it focused on what types of investments it should be making to preserve that momentum.

“What sort of investments can the firm make to keep bettering Varnum and preparing us for the future,” Kyros said. “Talking about things like how to make the most of the Detroit office. It’s a big investment, but a big opportunity. Grand Rapids is, and will be for a long time anyway, where the vast majority of our lawyers are, so investing in office space here.”

As 2015 continues, Kyros and Huizenga expect to see Varnum’s business-related practices continue to pick up as well as practices that tend to follow an uptick in the economy.

“We’ve seen the entire life cycle of businesses picking up,” Huizenga said. “There is more commerce going on, so we have more general business work that is being done.”

Additionally, he said the firm’s financial planning and estate planning work would also likely grow as the result of the wealth that is once again being generated in the economy.

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