Peace in the Valley
Larry Sonsini is a peacemaker in the sometimes-battlefield that is Silicon Valley
Published in 2006 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 17, 2006
Updated on March 17, 2017
Larry Sonsini is famous for taking chances, often betting his time and lots of his money on businesses that were little more than ideas. But he took his biggest chance, and reaped his biggest reward, on a decision he made four decades ago.
In the spring of 1966, he was finishing up his coursework at Boalt School of Law. Fascinated by business law, he considered moving to New York to pursue his career. That would have been the safe bet. But Sonsini’s securities law professor, Richard Jennings, offered different advice, which dramatically changed Sonsini’s life and eventually helped shape the high-tech revolution that later occurred in the area not yet known as “Silicon Valley.” Jennings advised Sonsini to forget the East Coast and to look at what was happening in Palo Alto, which was virtually on his front doorstep.
Today, of course, Sonsini is the chairman and chief rainmaker for Palo Alto-based Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. And when it comes to high-powered, high-tech law, few dispute that he is the long-reigning king.
Sonsini has played a critical role in many of the Valley’s major turning points, from the Apple Computer and Sun Microsystems IPOs in the early 1980s to Google’s wildly successful IPO in 2004. He has brokered major mergers and acquisitions, including IBM’s purchase of ROLM Corporation in the 1980s and Hewlett-Packard’s controversial takeover of Compaq Computer in 2002. Along the way, he has also played the role of grand counselor, advising a long list of industry luminaries, from Steve Jobs to Carly Fiorina. Today, with nearly 1,400 employees, including 600 lawyers, WSG&R is far and away the largest and best-known law firm in Silicon Valley and one of the most highly regarded firms specializing in high-tech law in the world.
Recently Sonsini did what he rarely does — he talked about himself.
“I’m a blend,” he says. “My father says that I have so much of my mother’s emotional balance and so much of his drive, his entrepreneurial spirit. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have that happen. At work I see myself as an adviser. I think people hire me for my judgment, perspective, balance and ability to quickly assess the facts from the rumors to come to a solution. Outside of work, I can also be a very sociable person. I love people who are just genuine. Everyone has agendas, I suppose. But I like people who check their egos at the door — people who look at life as a process, an experience. I seek that out in people.”
A Road Leading From Rome
In 1949, Sonsini’s parents, Lawrence and Mary Sonsini, made the archetypal American move and went West. Seeing limited opportunities in their hometown of Rome, N.Y., they packed up their belongings, put 8-year-old Larry and his younger sister, Lucille, in the family’s green Studebaker, and drove across the country to California. There was no job waiting for Lawrence at the end of the road, only the promise of opportunity. “I admire his drive and courage so much,” Sonsini says of his father. “And I respect my mother’s compassion and integrity. She was one of the kindest, most stable people I’ve ever known. She was always there for her family.”
The family settled in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley, and soon Lawrence found work at the Hughes Tool Company. He did not have a college education, but he read constantly, attended night school, and eventually rose through the ranks to become the head of the company’s Flight Operations and Quality Assurance organizations.
During this time, young Larry excelled in both academics and athletics, playing football in high school and on the freshman team at the University of California at Berkeley (he was a quarterback) and rugby for Berkeley’s legendary Doc Hudson.
At Boalt School of Law, Sonsini met Richard Jennings. “I had decided I wanted to be a business lawyer,” Sonsini recalls. “And he asked me to be his research assistant. He’s the one who told me Palo Alto was going to be a growing area. He saw the venture capital industry starting.” So, instead of making the long trip East, Sonsini got into his Volkswagen Bug one rainy spring Saturday in 1966 and made the 45-minute trek south to Palo Alto.
There he met John Wilson, the senior partner in a four-person firm who shared Jennings’ belief that something big was brewing in the South Bay Area. “I went into his office, and there he was in a blue suit and a tie all dressed up on a Saturday,” Sonsini says. “I admired him right off the bat. He liked the balance in his life. We didn’t talk much about law school. The interview was about character.”
Along with his father, coaches and Richard Jennings, Sonsini counts John Wilson as one of the great influences on his life. “John gave me as much responsibility as he could,” Sonsini says. “He continually pushed me. And he was able to step aside and let me grow.”
As the small firm’s fifth lawyer and first nonpartner, Sonsini started out doing a little bit of everything, from divorces to wills to personal injury suits. But within three years, he had done his first initial public offering (IPO). It was for a company called Coherent Radiation, which, Sonsini notes, is now called Coherent and is still a client. In 1978, Wilson handed the CEO responsibilities to Sonsini, and, as the Santa Clara Valley morphed into Silicon Valley, the firm began to grow exponentially.
Sonsini has an atypical take on the impact of Silicon Valley’s high-tech revolution. Instead of touting milestone achievements such as the personal computer or Internet search engines, his focus is on values. He is, for example, particularly impressed by the high-tech industry’s emphasis on diversity, merit and risk taking. “It doesn’t matter where you are educated, how you are dressed or what your religion is. It’s all about your contribution,” he says. “It’s a culture that personifies freedom. Just take Google. They are achieving tremendous growth by using a business model that is unique — not by following someone else’s model. Dare to be great — that’s what this valley is all about.” And these same values, he believes, are taking root in emerging high-tech centers from Israel to India.
A Full Life Outside the Office
Sonsini has three children and five grandchildren and is, according to wife Barbara, “at his best at times like the holidays when he has his family around him.”
Son Matt, a partner at WSG&R, agrees. “The family is very important to my father,” he says. “Even during the early days when he was building the firm, he made time to coach our sports teams and attend every important event. As important as his practice is to him, he has always made it clear that the family comes first.”
Matt also sees similarities in the way Sonsini acts as a parent and as the leader of a law firm. “As a father, I think he managed my brother and me in the same way he manages the firm,” says Matt. “He was always there for us when we needed him, but he expected us to learn by our own mistakes. Rarely did he sit us down and tell us what we needed to do to be successful. He didn’t have to — he led by example.”
Ken Oshman, one of the co-founders of ROLM Corporation and currently the chairman and CEO of Echelon Corporation, has known Sonsini for more than 30 years. He describes his friend as a “very caring, high-integrity, wonderful individual” and highly values his judgment, advice and ability to build and manage organizations filled with strong-willed people. “You can tell a lot about a person on a golf course,” he says. “Larry plays far too little golf, and he plays far too well for someone who plays as little as he does. He wins money from me every time we play.”
Lean and fit, Sonsini works out in his home gym for an hour each day. He enjoys playing golf and tennis, dining out, purchasing art and watching classic movies. “I enjoy the richness, artfulness and the whole feeling those movies give me,” he says. His favorite film is Casablanca. He is also an avid reader. “I love Steinbeck,” he says. “I think East of Eden is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I also love Anna Karenina, The Catcher in the Rye, The Prince of Tides, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Maltese Falcon. Just a couple of months ago, I reread Hamlet. It’s phenomenal.”
Sonsini loves to travel, particularly to his home in Palm Desert, Calif., and to Europe. “I love to go to our home in Palm Desert and light a good cigar,” he says. “Life is pretty simple there. I love Paris for the tranquility. I love to just sit outside and drink espresso and watch the people. And I love just about any place in Italy. I love the richness of their culture and the smell of the Tuscan hillsides.”
Focused on the Future
In 2005, after years of speculation about his successor, he handed the firm’s CEO title to partner John Roos. This has freed him, he says, from many duties and allowed him to focus on the firm’s long-term growth. Currently, WSG&R has offices in New York; Washington, D.C.; Reston, Va.; Austin, Texas; San Diego; Salt Lake City; and Seattle. This year, the firm will open an office in China. “I think we have to expand our national footprint,” he says. “I think we need to gain more scale and depth in New York and on the East Coast. And I think we need to be a success in China.” His objective — a very ambitious one — is to be one of the most prominent law firms with global technology centers.
While bullish about the future of Silicon Valley and America’s high-tech industry, Sonsini also sees major challenges ahead. “I think we have major competition from other countries, especially those in Asia,” he says. “And we have a potential education gap developing. I don’t think we are graduating enough people in the sciences and mathematics. We are outsourcing parts of our businesses elsewhere, but we have to keep our brain trust here.”
With his wealth and professional reputation long secure, what keeps Sonsini driving toward new opportunities? “I think that happiness is freedom,” he says. “And that freedom comes from doing things you really enjoy. So what drives me is the feeling that I am developing freedom by adding value every day. I think the exciting thing is to try to make a difference. If you are passionate about that, then life becomes infinitely more tolerable.
“What drives me?” he says. “It isn’t money. It isn’t name recognition. It isn’t being in magazines. It’s striving to achieve this inner sense of contentment I get when I do something better.”