An Engineer in the Valley

Thorny business problems are Gordy Davidson's playground  

Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2008

Boring. That's how Gordon (Gordy) Davidson describes himself. "I've had the same job for 32 years, the same wife for 38 years and the same phone number for 40 years."

When it comes to Silicon Valley technology deals, however, Davidson, a partner in Mountain View's Fenwick & West, is anything but boring. He's the partner in charge of the firm's Cisco Systems account. During the past five years his firm has represented Cisco in more than 50 acquisitions, and Davidson has been personally involved in several of these deals, including Cisco's $7 billion purchase of Scientific-Atlanta.           

The engineers at the Silicon Valley technology companies he represents are often surprised at how quickly he grasps their technology.

Here's his secret: Before enrolling at Stanford Law School, Davidson earned his B.S. in electrical engineering at Stanford as well as an M.S. in both electrical engineering and computer systems. "I can anticipate issues that lawyers without a technical background might not," says Davidson, whose trim physique and boyish face make him look younger than his 60 years.

So, how did he wind up in law school? The summer after graduate school, Davidson worked at a young technology company where he interacted daily with the founders. "I was bitten by the ‘startup bug,'" he says. "I thought being a lawyer would provide an opportunity to work with many emerging companies rather than just one."

So back to Stanford for a law degree. After graduating in 1974 and spending a year clerking for a judge, Davidson joined Fenwick & West. He hasn't left. For the past 12 years he has been its chairman, responsible for strategic planning, which includes expanding the firm's emerging technology clients.

Davidson says he has "a typical Silicon Valley practice, handling everything from a company's birth to venture capital financings, to IPOs, to acquisitions." Because of his engineering background, he attracts computer and software companies. He also represents biotech, alternative-energy and semiconductor firms, and even non-tech businesses. Case in point: he helped Virgin America through several financings and the launch of its U.S. carrier. "I was fortunate to be invited to fly on one of the carrier's two simultaneous ‘first flights,'" he says. 

Increasingly, Davidson does governance work, which requires applying business judgment to the law. "Clients are looking for a way through thorny business problems." He tells of a corporate client that recently had an opportunity to settle some litigation. The client asked Davidson to participate in a high-level executive meeting to brainstorm settlement structures. "They were looking for business judgment and creativity in crafting a settlement that would work for both sides," he says.

According to Mark Chandler, Cisco's senior vice president and general counsel, "Gordy has an incredible and well-deserved reputation for balance and judgment. He helps to get to the right decisions, respects everyone involved in the process and wins the confidence of senior management."

Such was the case when Mountain View's Intuit, a leading provider of business and financial management solutions, asked him to handle a $1.7 billion offer Microsoft made to acquire it. Though the deal fell through, Davidson had an opportunity to negotiate face-to-face with Bill Gates. "He was an exceptionally bright deal maker and had a keen intellectual curiosity about key legal issues," says Davidson.

Davidson's most intricate deal involved 1,800 California walnut farmers. He converted their agricultural cooperative into a for-profit corporation and took it public. "The most complex part," he says, "was a meeting where I had to explain to the farmers what the conversion and stock ownership would mean to them." Ironically, Davidson is highly allergic to nuts. "Still, they hired me," he notes.

Davidson's most satisfying deal involved the sale of Watsonville's Skyway Freight Systems, a small inbound freight logistics company, to Union Pacific. Nearly a decade and a half earlier, 10 individuals each invested $10,000 in Skyway, but until the sale none of them ever saw a nickel in return. "I had the pleasure of writing them a letter saying they would each get $3.4 million for that $10,000," says Davidson.

When Davidson started practicing, "Silicon Valley was mostly apricot orchards," he says. Fenwick & West had fewer than a dozen lawyers. Today, Silicon Valley is the nation's—maybe the world's—technology capital. Fenwick & West has grown to about 275 lawyers.

Davidson, who has seen the Valley through four business cycles, is now seeing consolidation of its technology firms. Law firms are also consolidating, he notes, and firms headquartered elsewhere are opening Silicon Valley outposts. Most, he says, are looking for high-end merger and litigation work as well as finance work representing underwriters. Unlike Fenwick & West, "they're not interested or equipped to deal with startups."

When not doing technology deals, Davidson enjoys hiking and traveling with his wife, Carolyn, who worked as a college textbook editor to put her husband through law school. Davidson also skis and plays golf, and describes himself as a "rabid hockey fan."

Does this sound like a guy who's boring?

 

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