RALEIGH – Hutchison PLLC, founded in May 1996, turns 25 years old this month. The firm, founded by Fred Hutchison, celebrates its origins as one with a sole focus on supporting entrepreneurs along the entrepreneurial journey, from early-stage, including participation in an incubator or accelerator, to exit.
“We continue with that entrepreneurial focus today,” said Hutchison. “It is the combination of fast-paced business and visionary entrepreneurs that our attorneys love and the excitement of seeing innovative ideas every day that has kept the practice going for this long.”
The story goes: one day, while practicing in Raleigh, Hutchison was asked to cover a meeting on the topic of incubators and accelerators. After the meeting, Hutchison oriented his law practice to focus specifically on startups. Now, 25 years later, the firm is ranked by PitchBook as a top 5 venture law firm in the Southeast.
“Entrepreneurs are unique individuals with the drive and determination to venture out into areas with a large number of unknowns, particularly funding, and yet they thrive in that environment,” Hutchison wrote five years ago, in celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the firm he founded. “Someone once said to me that most entrepreneurs are unemployable. I guess that is right in the sense that most of them don’t follow the rules and are always finding ways to do things differently and hopefully better and more efficiently. I think that being “unemployable” in some ways is really a badge of honor for entrepreneurs and what makes them successful.”
The firm faced challenges, notably stiff competition from more established “big brand name” firms based out of the region and lack of suitable, available real estate that led to a small office adjacent to a chiropractor’s office, with the onset of Hurricane Fran soon after the firm’s move-in date, which resulted in a flood, a lack of air conditioning, and the stench of kitty litter for two weeks following the storm.
“It was hard in some ways but we all pulled together and were all excited to be part of our new venture,” said Hutchison.
Before and beyond the ‘dot com boom’
The firm’s first five years saw growth, and the run-up of interest in technology firms, followed by the dot-com bust in the early 2000s. Five lawyers completed 100 financing deals in 2001, noted Hutchison, as the technology sector took a big hit. The firm also worked with clients in the life sciences, an industry which was still affected by the dot-com crash, but was less volatile compared to technology startups.
By the firm’s 15th anniversary, it had weathered yet another crash: the Great Recession. The fallout from the early days of that recession were long lasting, and the firm responded by cutting expenses, and cutting some staff positions as well. By the firm’s 15th birthday in May 2011, there were early signs of economic recovery and renewed interest in startups.
During those years following the crash, people were scared, investors retrenched, and entrepreneurs expressed additional creativity and tenacity, said Hutchison. So did their lawyers, noted Hutchison, and as a firm, the decisions made to support and advise startups and their founders through the Great Recession prepared the firm, and its clients, to emerge from the Great Recession stronger than ever.
The firm would add client segments, including the representation of nonprofit research institutions, investors, and adding geographic regions well outside of the Triangle. Though the bulk of the firm’s clients used to be based in the Triangle, now the firm has expanded to represent clients across the Southeast, the United States, and also across the globe, and the firm now is a member of LawExchange International, enhancing its ability to serve clients globally.
Many clients have seen notable successes, some quickly, and others, much longer. SciQuest and LipoScience, as two examples, completed initial public offerings (IPOs), while Coventor stuck to the development and commercialization of its microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) chip technology development for 22 years and was then acquired in 2017 by Lam Research.
What most sticks out to the firm about its presence and impact in the Triangle community is its structure, which enables lawyers and the firm to assist local ecosystems, first in the Triangle, and now in other cities across the southeast, said Hutchison. “Fortunate to have been able to develop lasting relationships and to continue to work with many entrepreneurs in their successive endeavors,” he noted, including when events at large companies that were outside of an individual’s direct control–layoffs, mergers, acquisitions, for example–led to new company formation.
With its headquarters in the Triangle, Hutchison has also played a role in the recruitment of startups to the region, noted Helga Leftwich, retired Hutchison PLLC partner, a role that demonstrates its approach to ecosystem support, rather than legal transactions. “Having the firm dedicated to supporting the ecosystem on a continuous basis has helped support existing companies here but also draw new entrepreneurs,” said Leftwich.
While the most pressing legal issues that companies are facing in 2021 are issues around privacy and data security, the next 25 years of legal support of entrepreneurial ecosystems from Hutchison PLLC will likely be guided from its first 25 years of lessons learned, built on the foundation of the firm’s core values, and involve a lot more technology professionals on staff, predicted Dan Fuchs, one of the firm’s managing partners, claiming there will be at least as many technology professionals as lawyers at firms in the future.
The firm is, as a result of lessons learned, said Fuchs, “well positioned for changes to come, even if we don’t know what the challenges will be.”
“We, too, are entrepreneurs and will stay adaptable,” he concluded.