Boris Feldman wants to Save the World (And Make It Safe for Fun)
Anyone who can replace stacks of files with piles of toys can't be all bad
Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on June 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Enter Boris Feldman’s office and you immediately notice the bookshelves overflowing with toys. Not the kind you find in a big-box toy store, but gadgets like a solar-powered head that moves side to side, faces-of-the-moon stress balls, a toy rabbi that plays “Hava Nagila.” “I’m a gadget freak,” says Feldman, a litigation partner in the Palo Alto office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Next you notice Feldman’s snazzy bow tie. He’s been wearing bow ties for 25 years. His wry explanation: “I was getting food on long ties. It’s hard to get food on a bow tie. You have to really be drooling down.”
Something else is remarkable about Feldman’s office: there are no piles of paper anywhere. That’s because, Feldman says, the documents he needs are digitalized onto the firm’s network. “I can look anything up, find it quickly,” he says.
Rapidly retrieving documents is essential when you’re one of Silicon Valley’s crack litigators. Almost always on the defense side, the 52-year-old Feldman represents companies and senior executives facing shareholder suits and SEC investigations involving alleged violations of securities laws. One example is a court victory that prevented a shareholder and former director of Hewlett-Packard from stopping the company’s merger with Compaq Computer. At the trial, Feldman put then-HP CEO Carly Fiorina on the stand. By carefully preparing her, he made Fiorina a knowledgeable, persuasive witness. “Too often litigators allow [senior executive] clients to look stupid for tactical reasons,” he says.
Feldman was born and raised in South Bend, Ind. His parents, immigrants from Poland, came to the United States in 1949 after spending four years in Europe as displaced persons.
Somewhere between the ages of 4 and 5, Feldman decided to become a lawyer. “I was contentious as a child and people said to me, ‘Stop being a lawyer.’ After a while, that imprinted on me.”
A graduate of Yale Law School, Feldman began his law firm career in 1981 at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Four years later, he became special assistant to the legal adviser at the State Department, where he worked on polygraphs, terrorism and arms control. In 1986, he moved to Palo Alto and Wilson Sonsini, so his wife, Robin, now a professor at Hastings College of the Law, could attend Stanford Law School.
Feldman spent a lot of time defending Genentech, the world’s biggest biotech company. “Some of its drugs have saved many lives, others have failed, making it a very appealing target for plaintiff’s lawyers,” he says. Of his half dozen or so Genentech cases, Feldman has settled just one.
Defending biotechs is important, he says, because “they don’t want just to make money, they want to change the world.”
Feldman’s favorite legal moment involved an eruv, the Hebrew word for a real or symbolic boundary. During the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews like Feldman are permitted to carry certain items outside their own property only within an area circumscribed by the eruv. Acting at the request of a rabbi, Feldman convinced the Palo Alto City Council and other jurisdictions, including California’s Department of Transportation and Santa Clara County, to create such a wall, around 10 square miles of Palo Alto. Some sections have natural boundaries, such as creek beds; other sections use string to create a symbolic boundary. “It’s probably the legal matter I’ve worked on [that] I’m most proud of,” he says.
What Feldman likes most about his job is the clients, he says. These clients—Boston Scientific being another leading technology company he represents—operate a “pure meritocracy,” he says. Their executives, he adds, are “entrepreneurial and not unduly risk-averse.”
Another plus for Feldman is that each case involves different technologies and legal issues. Defending Facebook, for example, he learned about social networking. Defending Franklin Templeton Investments, he learned about mutual funds.
Feldman modestly credits his success to the “right time and right place”—in other words, to joining Wilson Sonsini more than 20 years earlier. Like its clients, he says, the firm is entrepreneurial. “I wouldn’t have achieved the same professional success on a different platform.”
Feldman is a stickler for responsiveness, returning calls and e-mails with lightning speed. “I’m a compulsive BlackBerry and e-mail checker,” he says. Even opponents get a quick response.
Feldman has practiced in Silicon Valley in times of boom and gloom. “I’ve seen the full spectrum of greed and remorse,” he says. One of the Valley’s greatest assets, he feels, is its ability to reinvent itself. “The Valley is cloning itself in China, India and Israel. This won’t diminish the Valley; it will enhance it. There will be a greater fluidity of talent and capital between the Valley and each of those places. It’s not a zero-sum game.”
When Feldman joined Wilson Sonsini’s Palo Alto office, it had 80 lawyers; today it has 700. The Silicon Valley legal community is also growing; national firms are opening offices there. Feldman calls this phenomenon the “invasion of the vandal hordes. Everybody has decided this is where the honey pot is and they want to be Pooh.” He questions whether the invaders’ business models and personalities fit the Valley’s legal culture.
When not defending companies and executives, Feldman spends as much time as possible with his wife and their five children, ages 2 to 18. In his office, family photos compete for space with gadgets.
Also in the office is the Talmud, a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. Guided by a rabbi, Feldman is studying this book, one suspects, with the same diligence and dedication that have made him a formidable Silicon Valley litigator.