No Steak Tartare for Alan Mendelson

A gentle man is sought by emerging life sciences companies        

Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Paul Freeman on June 15, 2008


Alan Mendelson explains his passion for the life sciences industry with a story about a visit to his mother’s home. He struck up a conversation there with a friend of his mother’s who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When undergoing chemotherapy, she took Neupogen, a drug developed by Amgen that stimulates production of infection-fighting white blood cells. Without it, her doctor informed her, she’d already be dead. Learning that Amgen was a longtime Mendelson client, she told him, Mendelson recalls, “As far as I’m concerned, you saved my life.”           

Operating from Latham & Watkins’ Menlo Park office, the 60-year-old Mendelson is Silicon Valley’s lawyer of choice for emerging and public growth companies. Not only did he represent Amgen for more than 25 years, he has handled public offerings and acquisitions for such notable biotechs as South San Francisco’s Renovis, Palo Alto’s CV Therapeutics and South San Francisco’s Novacea.

“If you want a general counsel or principal outside counsel who can advise the board and management team on many of the issues emerging companies confront, particularly in the life sciences space, I’m your guy,” says Mendelson.

Confirming this assessment is John Walker, Novacea’s CEO and chairman of the board. “Alan provides good across-the-board counsel to senior management and CEOs. He not only brings a legal perspective, but to use a phrase right out of the Godfather movies, he is clearly a consigliore.”

A 1973 graduate of Harvard Law School, Mendelson didn’t plan on practicing law. Politics was his first love; law school, he reasoned, was the springboard to that world. But while studying for the California bar exam, he started watching the Watergate hearings on TV. He became disgusted with the Nixon lawyers who had violated the public trust. He also spent four frustrating summers interning in the office of San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, concluding that the mayor and his staff were more interested in their own advancement than in helping the citizenry. “I wanted no part of politics,” he decided.

After the bar exam, Mendelson joined Cooley Godward Kronish’s San Francisco office as an associate. He soon made another discovery: He disliked litigation. “The perception of litigators in those days was that they ate raw meat for breakfast and had to pound the other side,” he says. What he did like was working on what today would be labeled a late mezzanine financing for a high-tech company. He had found his niche: transactions that help build companies. “I liked the collegial aspect of this practice where both sides are trying to get a deal done,” he says.

In the late 1970s, the venture capital industry exploded, thanks largely to federal tax cuts. Mendelson and other lawyers at Cooley Godward lobbied for a Silicon Valley office. It opened in 1980. Mendelson arrived a year later.

At about the same time, a senior partner handed him two clients that would shape his destiny: Amgen and Acuson, a maker of diagnostic medical ultrasound systems now owned by Siemens. “At the time Amgen was formed, there were maybe 10 biotech companies in the world,” he says. “No lawyer knew much about how to build an emerging biotech company or about science. I did a lot of on-the-job learning.”

In the late 1990s, Mendelson and other Silicon Valley lawyers watched the dot-com boom touch virtually every business there, including their own. “There was an aspect of absolute frenetic craziness in Silicon Valley where people lost their minds,” he says. Law firms were so overwhelmed with work, he recalls, “they’d hire anyone with a law degree who could chew gum.” Firms began turning away clients that couldn’t provide repeat business.

Sensing a bubble in the making, Mendelson urged his partners to develop strategic relationships with other companies to protect themselves when the boom went bust. But he couldn’t convince them to take that step. It was time, he decided, to move to another firm. He chose Latham & Watkins because he wanted a global firm. Eight years ago, when he joined Latham, its Menlo Park office had 35 lawyers. Today it has 110.

Asked why he’s been successful, Mendelson replies, “I’m not the smartest guy in the world. But I have good judgment and am passionate about what I do. And I’ll walk through walls for clients.”

An example of that judgment: his representation of Mountain View’s Aviron. It had developed a groundbreaking flu vaccine that is sprayed into the nose rather than injected. But the company was struggling to secure FDA approval of the vaccine. Mendelson helped convince the board of directors to sell the company for $1.6 billion rather than stay independent and try to secure regulatory approval and market the product itself. A wise move, since it took the buyer much longer than expected to bring the vaccine to market.

To further understand his passion, consider another Mendelson client, Sunnyvale’s Intuitive Surgical. It builds and sells the da Vinci robotic system for assisted minimally invasive surgery, including prostatectomy. “If I’m ever diagnosed with prostate cancer, I’m going to someone who uses this system,” says Mendelson. Companies like these, he declares fervidly, are trying to help patients. “I find that process invigorating.”           

Mendelson and his wife, Agnès, have two adult children: Jonathan, a director of business development devices, and David, a product manager.

Away from the office, Mendelson plays what he describes as “lousy” golf. He has season tickets to the Giants and San Jose Sharks. He likes to read spy and mystery novels.

He confesses, however, that he probably has too few outside interests. “No question about it, my practice is the No. 1 priority in my life.”

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