What's in a name? According to Evelyn Ashley, founder of Red Hot Law Group, just about everything. "We're not interested in making celebrities of a select few partners," says Ashley, 41. "And we don't have 120 years to sit around and wait for our brand to develop. We need to distinguish ourselves now — to show that we're edgier and out front."
Red Hot Law's branding strategy is only the tip of the tamale for this Atlanta-based practice. Founded in March 1998, it is an aggressive law firm that targets fast-growing technology companies. The firm's 85 active clients are evenly divided among private, public, venture-backed, and pre-VC-funded companies. But it's also affiliated with an accelerator company that gives startups office space, legal representation, and marketing services in exchange for cash and/or equity.
Alan McKeon, 37, is "chief firestarter" at that company — Red Hot Technology Accelerator. (McKeon also happens to be Ashley's husband.) The accelerator works only with companies that are clients of the law firm. Those clients have watercooler-and-coffee-pot access to the firm's on-site lawyers and experts — and a quick response time on matters of real concern.
The place isn't called an "accelerator" for nothing. "We went from venture-capital term sheet to money in the bank in two weeks," says Paul Krebs, 27, COO of Online Insight Inc., an online sales-solutions provider and Red Hot Technology Accelerator's first graduate. "Greystone Capital Partners invested in us partly because we were able to act fast." Online Insight now has 30 employees and $4.5 million in funding.
Needless to say, wood paneling and marble columns are nowhere to be found at Red Hot Law. The firm's offices are located in the refurbished Biltmore Hotel, in the heart of Atlanta's technology district. Its office walls are made of exposed gray concrete; sporadic ceiling tiles partially cover the silver ducts and pipes. A red streak, similar to the one in the company's logo, twists down the gray carpet in the hallway. At the reception desk, Red Hots are available to nibble on.
The law firm and accelerator employ a total of 13 lawyers and as many support staffers, and the accelerator can host up to eight startups at a time. Companies can apply to join the accelerator just after what McKeon calls the "friends, family, and fools" round of financing. Once a startup is taken on, its founders meet with attorneys from the law firm, McKeon, and on-site finance-and-marketing gurus for a half-day intensive strategy session.
During that session, the startup's founders spend an hour presenting their business plan. The Red Hot group then brainstorms for an hour, and, in the final hour, puts together a framework of deliverables for the next 90 days. Companies "graduate" when they're fully funded — usually about 6 months after they've entered the program.
Red Hot Law is changing the game in other ways too. Ever heard of a law firm that gives its clerical staff a stake in the company? This one does. Staff members receive a portion of the accelerator-owned stock options as a bonus. "Don't be a hog. Hogs get slaughtered," advises Ashley. "I wanted to create an equal, easygoing practice built on the premise that your name doesn't have to be on the wall to be considered an equal."
The firm charges clients differently too. For a flat rate of $15,000, certain startups can buy a three-month "startup package," which includes a shareholders' agreement, a corporate minute book, a trademark application, a basic nondisclosure agreement for employees and independent contractors, an incentive plan, and an initial-strategy session.
Culture is central to the Red Hot brand, and the firm operates under what Ashley calls the NAP (which stands for "no-assholes policy"). Every Friday, the firm provides beer for its clients, lawyers, and support staffers. Mondays are brown-bag-lunch days, during which people talk about such topics as how to spend money wisely on trademarks or why firms need an employee-invention-assignment agreement, while munching on firm-provided brown-bag meals.
"Lawyers can be arrogant and condescending," says Ashley. "We don't want soloists. We work hard to bring in people who see themselves as team players."
Contact Evelyn Ashley by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Red Hot Law Group on the Web (www.redhotlaw.com).
Sidebar: Name Game
Here's a secret: Red Hot Law Group's real name is Red Hot Law Group of Ashley LLC. And founder Evelyn Ashley would like nothing better than to drop her name from that title.
Unfortunately for her, most states require law firms to include the name of one of its principals in the title. So Ashley tacked on her name at the end.
Not long after she registered Red Hot Law Group of Ashley LLC, an article ran in a local law journal about the new firm. The next day, Ashley received a call from the general counsel of the State Bar of Georgia. When recalling the conversation, she imitates his voice with a slow, rocking-chair-like southern accent:
General Counsel: "Miss Ashley, I'm with the State Bar of Georgia, and I was flooded with telephone calls this morning. Now, why do you think that was, Miss Ashley?"
Ashley: "I can't imagine."
General Counsel: "Miss Ashley, are you aware of Ethics Rule No. 2-101?"
Ashley: "I am."
General Counsel: "Well, I believe you're in violation of that rule."
Ashley: "You must not have read all the way to the end of the name."
The general counsel checked his documentation and called back.
General Counsel: "Do you have a business card that has your name on it?"
Ashley: "Yes, I do."
Ashley faxed him her card, and she never heard back. "Some lawyers may not get it," she says. "They may think that the name's outrageous. But our clients get it. They see us, and they know exactly what we are: red hot!"
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.