Vandeventer Black reflects on its legacy after 135 years
One hundred thirty-five years after newly minted attorney Floyd W. Hughes began representing seafaring clients in Norfolk, Vandeventer Black LLP has evolved into an international business and litigation firm while also ranking as the state’s largest maritime law firm.
With its main office in the World Trade Center — a few blocks from where Hughes hung his shingle in 1883 — Vandeventer Black’s practice areas today range from commercial real estate to cybersecurity and data privacy. The firm credits its longevity to an ability to adapt to fast-paced technological changes while adopting an entrepreneurial approach. “We’ve made the firm open to changes in the marketplace and industry,” says Michael L. Sterling, Vandeventer Black’s managing partner.
One of Hampton Roads’ oldest continuously operating law firms, Vandeventer Black has 54 attorneys and about 50 other staff members. In addition to Norfolk, the firm has U.S. offices in Richmond and Kitty Hawk and Raleigh, N.C. The firm also has an office in Hamburg, Germany, which is staffed by lawyers who travel overseas to meet with clients as needed. Vandeventer Black lawyers represent clients in administrative proceedings, litigation and appeals, commercial transactions and dispute resolutions. “Our firm is focused on trying to bring premium services to clients at a fair price,” Sterling adds. “That’s a big deal to us.”
Sterling joined the firm in 1985 after serving as a law clerk the previous year. At the time, Vandeventer Black had recently moved to the World Trade Center and was one of the first offices in Norfolk to install a cable machine to communicate with overseas clients. “There was value here when I first joined, and we try to hand down that value to everybody who joins the firm,” he adds.
Today, Vandeventer Black attorneys rely heavily on voice mail, email and electronic records. “We’re very digital,” Sterling says, adding that digital records have replaced many of the paper documents and books in the firm’s legal library. “We make sure our lawyers are technologically proficient to meet our clients’ needs and have built more efficiencies into the practice of law and have passed that on to our clients.”
However, face-to-face meetings are still valued, especially with new clients. “We make sure we meet them and shake hands,” Sterling says. “Oftentimes after that, it’s mainly electronic communications like videoconferencing.”
Along with technological proficiency, Vandeventer Black emphasizes its attorneys’ experience, which often transcends the legal profession. Many, for example, have degrees in disciplines such as civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, and they worked in those fields before pursuing law degrees. Others have MBAs or advanced degrees in legal areas such as taxation and environmental law. “That extra knowledge helps our lawyers understand and analyze client needs in specialty areas,” Sterling notes.
The firm also seeks out attorneys who have served in the military or worked for the government. “We look for attorneys with useful life experiences,” Sterling says.
Virtually every lawyer at Vandeventer Black has been recognized for professional accomplishments, and many are arbitrators and mediators for the American Arbitration Association. The firm is listed in Best Lawyers’ Best Law Firms. In addition, Best Lawyers named three of the firm’s attorneys — Edward J. Powers, William E. Franczek and Stephan F. Andrews — Lawyers of the Year for 2019 based on receiving the highest peer reviews in their practice areas in the region.
Along with individual clients, the firm represents businesses and private and public entities, including Virginia International Terminals and the Norfolk Airport Authority. “We’re team members with the port,” Sterling says. “The port is a symbol of why we are here — a gateway of commerce.”
Vandeventer Black also works with companies to bring new jobs and technologies to Hampton Roads. “We love that,” Sterling says. “We like to help bring that business to town because it means new jobs and new opportunities.”
Currently, the firm is assisting Global Technical Systems, a homegrown company that is building a $55 million electro-mechanical energy storage system manufacturing operation projected to create 1,100 jobs in Virginia Beach. “We’ve worked with GTS since they started the business and helped encourage them to remain in the region,” Sterling adds.
Volunteering and philanthropy
Outside of the office, Vandeventer Black attorneys and staff members can be found supporting a variety of nonprofit organizations and charitable causes, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast Virginia, ForKids Inc., Elizabeth River Project, Louise W. Eggleston Center Inc., Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia, Special Olympics and Fisher House Foundation in Richmond. The firm established The Vandeventer Black Foundation to provide endowments for current and future charitable needs.
“Philanthropy is an important part of what we do,” Sterling says. “We especially try to work with local charities to provide financial as well as physical support.” For example, Vandeventer Black lawyers and staff members grill hot dogs for athletes participating in Hampton Roads Special Olympics and spruce up Eggleston Services’ Camp Civitan each spring.
Barron Black, who joined the firm in 1923 and remained active until his death in 1974, emphasized community involvement. “He would ask, ‘What are you going to do for the public good?’” Sterling recalls. “That’s a question we still ask of new lawyers joining the firm.”
As Vandeventer Black approaches its 150th anniversary, the firm is encountering new challenges and opportunities, including representing an increasing number of businesses held by shareholders instead of family members. “Twenty or 30 years ago the bulk of our business was from people we knew,” Sterling notes. “That’s still a great source of business, but we have to have a more active effort to locate clients and offer our services to potential clients. We’re always looking for opportunities to expand.”