By Andrew Cohen
They heard all the warnings: Don’t mix work and friends. Don’t hang out your own shingle without first spending years in a large firm. Don’t offer new hires too much flexibility.
So how have former Berkeley Law roommates Ryan Shaening Pokrasso, Hash Zahed, and David De La Flor flourished running SPZ Legal? By ignoring them.
“I think having these strong friendships that predate the firm allows for more honest conversations,” De La Flor says. “We all truly care about each other, and want nothing but the best for each other. When you’re growing a business together, knowing you have that support behind you is invaluable.”
After graduating in 2013, Shaening Pokrasso and Zahed accepted fellowships with the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office and Berkeley Law’s New Business Counseling Practicum (now the New Business Community Law Clinic), respectively.
Toward the end of his fellowship, Shaening Pokrasso felt “dissatisfied” with what he saw as the two traditional options: a big law job that’s lucrative but not always focused on engaging subject matter, or a public interest position that generates more passion but less money.
“In either situation, you’re going to work too much,” he says. “It felt like a false dichotomy and that there’s a third option where you can make good money, have a large impact, feel strongly about your work, and have some balance in your life.”
A shared vision
Not seeing any early-career job openings that fit this vision, Shaening Pokgrasso and Zahed launched Elevate Law and Strategy and later rebranded it SPZ Legal. Their goal: help entrepreneurs who want to use business as a tool for social change.
“Starting a practice only one year out of law school brought a lot of challenges, especially convincing clients to trust us with their legal work when we didn’t have much experience and developing a book of business,” Zahed says.
They initially took on small, simple tasks to learn the technical legal skills needed for bigger projects, and attended countless events to build their professional network. While those relationships took time to foster, they’re paying ongoing dividends.
“Now we take on much more sophisticated matters and are more intentional about working with mission-focused companies looking to have a positive impact in the world,” Zahed says. “While we’ve come a long way since those early days, we’ve kept our hustle mentality and make it a point not to take anything — especially our clients — for granted.”
SPZ works with clients from across the world, from bootstrapped startups to venture-backed companies, in industries ranging from financial technology to education to consumer goods. Operating as a remote firm and staying committed to that model has helped land stellar legal talent from all over the country to join SPZ — which hired three lawyers from top law firms and two paralegals last year.
A boutique law firm for startups, SPZ advises entrepreneurs from incorporation to exit in various areas, including entity structuring and formation, venture capital financing, employment law, commercial contracts, data privacy and mergers and acquisitions, among others.
Taking the leap
Shaening Pokrasso’s parents both own businesses, and Zahed’s father was an entrepreneur. They point to that background, and Berkeley Law’s enterprising spirit, as key confidence builders for creating their own firm.
De La Flor started his legal career as a large-firm litigator in South Florida, but eventually realized litigation wasn’t the right fit. He transitioned to doing transactional work at a smaller firm when his former roommates reached out to discuss returning to California and joining SPZ’s leadership team.
“I knew moving to the Bay Area would allow me to focus on the type of work I love,” De La Flor says. “More importantly, being able to do that with two of my best friends, to grow a firm and mold it in our vision, was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Hash and Ryan were doing amazing work for incredible clients, and I could already see the foundation they were building.”
For Shaening Pokrasso, being mission-aligned with the clients and “seeing the world as they see it” enhances their ability to provide concrete tools needed for companies to attract investment — and ultimately pursue the impact they want to achieve. He has seen that help create not just ongoing business, but lasting connections.
“One client we’ve worked with for about four years, we incorporated the company and helped them with their very first contracts and employees. Now they have about 150 employees, have raised millions of dollars in investment, and are really having a massive impact in their industry,” Shaening Pokrasso says.
“I speak with the founder multiple times every week, and he and I have developed a really meaningful relationship. It’s incredibly rewarding to feel like I’m a part of his business and to feel so valued. But most importantly, I’m excited about the friendship and trust we’ve developed through the process.”