Taking The Path Less Traveled: The Most Important Decision in Larry Sonsini's Career
Who would have guessed that taking a less prestigious, lower-paying job would lead to the creation of one of the greatest law firms in the 21st century?
A few days ago, I tweeted about the “real lesson” behind Larry Sonsini’s success founding Wilson Sonsini. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of short form biographies because they oversimplify the path to success. They make it seem like these big wins came from bold decisions or innate talent. When in truth, it was more likely a series of small but important decisions made years earlier.
When I first noticed this pattern
I first realized this when I was an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. I overheard a couple of colleagues talking about Rodge Cohen, the most prominent lawyer in the firm who had been recently featured in a glowing New York Times article called The Trauma Surgeon Of Wall Street. Someone mentioned that in his early days, Cohen worked in an area of law that was considered kind of a backwater. According to a this article:
[I]n 1970, he joined Sullivan & Cromwell. He was asked to join the firm's banking practice, which then lacked glamour. Mr. Cohen changed all that.
Hearing that story confirmed a hypothesis I had about careers, and business in general.It’s tempting to look at someone’s success today, and believe that it was linear and they were destined for great things. That’s when I decided to keep an eye out for this theme among lawyers I admired. It wasn’t long before I came across the story of the founder of one of the most influential law firms in the country, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Choosing the option that’s less prestigious and pays less
When Larry Sonsini graduated from law school, he had a lot of options. As a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, he likely could have taken any Biglaw job in NY or LA. These jobs were prestigious and paid a lot more than the one he ended up taking. Instead he joined a small, three lawyer Palo Alto firm that was described as a “broad, eclectic rural, smaller-town practice.” Or, as the New York Times put it:
WHEN Mr. Sonsini graduated from the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966, he chose to join a four-lawyer firm in a backwater whose very name, Silicon Valley, had yet to be coined.
It’s important to place this in the right context. Let’s say you’re about to graduate from one of the country’s top law firms. Your classmates are headed off to big cities to work at prestigious, high paying jobs. One of your classmates even ended up getting hired for a Supreme Court clerkship.
I wonder what it was like to be Larry Sonsini as a 3L. There was no social media then but what was it like, going out for drinks with your classmates and having to explain to them where you were headed next year?
It’s hard! Especially when Biglaw is an option on the table. When I was a 3L, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer and interviewed with the Manhattan DA. After going through part of the interview process, I ended up withdrawing my application to return to the firm I summed at, Sullivan & Cromwell.
It was just too hard to leave all that money on the table.
But not for Sonsini. Years later, when he was asked about why he decided to go to that Palo Alto firm, he credits his law professor for inspiring his decision, who told Sonsini:
"There's something going on down in the Valley. There are a lot of young businesses starting, and they're companies that are going to have to go public."
You could imagine what his friends and relatives probably said to him at the time of his decision. “Are you insane? You’ve got a pregnant wife and no savings. Boalt Law grads don’t throw away their careers by going to some shit firm!”
Don’t take advice from casual observers
Over the years I’ve noticed that law students exhibit the same thinking. It’s common among casual observers, friends, and well-meaning parents. It’s because outsiders don’t really understand the what’s happening in the industry. Sonisni did, though. He had a head start because of a key insight from his law professor (more on that in a second).
When you look past the starting salaries and the prestige, you begin to focus on what matter. Like what the entire ecosystem looks like, why the big firms pay what they do, and the changes that are happening in the market & practice areas.
Personally, it took me a long time to see. I was six years out of law school and 33 years old when I decided to survey the landscape and see the bigger picture. It was 2016 and I saw what was happening in technology, and how it was only a matter of time before it started to move into the legal industry. I also saw that my network was full of lawyers who would become GCs and partners in the coming years. Those observations led me to go into the legal tech space which was at the time viewed as a niche that would never take off.
Larry Sonsini knew better. I guess he had some advantages over me, like the ability to listen and take advice from someone in the know. The professor he worked for as a research assistant, Richard Jennings, was one of the leading and most influential securities law professors in the country. Someone who clearly knew what he was talking about. So Sonsini listened. Which led him to that small Palo Alto firm that gave him neither prestige nor money. What Sonsini got instead was far more valuable.
Taking the path less traveled gives you opportunities with less competition
When Sonsini joined the firm in 1966, he was the fourth attorney at the firm and its only associate. Which meant that in those early years, his experience was totally different than his classmates who went to larger, more established firms. For example, the firm’s startup practice grew so quickly that they needed to hire more lawyers, who were subject matter experts in multiple areas of the law. To accomplish that, Sonsini’s role at the firm changed:
Sonsini was put in charge of figuring out which new specialists the firm needed, and then recruiting them. "So I guess I was thrown early on into a leadership role," he says.
When you take the path less traveled—yes, it’s harder because there’s no clearly defined path to success. But in some ways it’s also easier. You have less competition. You can focus more on building skills and finding opportunities instead of spending all that time maneuvering yourself into the right position inside of your organization.
A quick note on “maneuvering yourself into the right position.” I didn’t know this when I was younger but many organizations reward you for maneuvering vs. having rare and valuable skills. What’s maneuvering? It’s things like office politics, or how to manage up/make yourself look good. I mean, that’s useful in the sense that it will lead to promotions and money. But it’s a tough game because everyone will be competing against you. There’s a scarcity mindset.
Back to Larry Sonsini. He joined the firm as its first associate but within a few years, his role changed:
"What I was learning very early on," he continues, "was that I could build an enterprise too . . . Wilson and Sonsini both wanted to continue to represent their clients as they grew, rather than handing them off to larger firms when they went public.”
That meant that he’d have to build and develop key skills related to being a managing partner. Like figuring out what the demand for certain skillsets were. Which means taking a big picture view of the market landscape, who the key players were, and where the market was headed. He also learned how to pitch lateral candidates to join his firm. Sonsini began to develop as a leader.
The highest and best use of your talents
Being a law firm leader is a very different job than being a service partner. This concept is (obviously) not limited to lawyers. When you’re a company executive, you have different priorities than if you were a specialist or individual contributor. You don’t just do the work in front of you. You’ve got to think strategically and consider the bigger picture, like trends happening in the market,or how you could exploit your unique position in the ecosystem. Which is exactly what Sonsini did:
While he recognized the potential of the startups, he understood they needed capital both to build their businesses and to pay their legal bills. The solution: The firm would not only introduce entrepreneurs to its venture capitalist friends but also help make its clients' business plans more attractive to investors.
As the firm shifted its mindset more towards helping startups more holistically, certain decisions became more obvious. Decisions like turning down guaranteed business & profits from a potential major client. As a younger colleague named Bob Latta described:
Sonsini took a call on the speakerphone from Bill Hambrecht and George Quist. Their firm was then the dominant high-technology underwriter in San Francisco, and they had called to inquire if Wilson Sonsini would agree to become their regular outside counsel.
"I think I literally got out of the chair and started jumping up and down," Latta recalls. He was gleeful, he explains, because he thought that now he'd have a shot at making as much money as his classmates who'd gone to San Francisco firms.
I love this part of the story because Bob Latta’s feelings were completely understandable. And normal. He was at the time several years out of Stanford Law and probably still wondering how he stacked up against his old friends—and how much money they were making. I totally get it.I felt the same exact way when I made that move to legal tech and watched as my old friends and classmates moved up in the law firm world, making partner, becoming GCs, and just crushing it. So yeah, I think it’s safe to say that many of us would have felt the same way as Latta.
But not Sonsini.
“Larry doesn't hesitate for a second," Latta continues. "Immediately he takes this apologetic tone and starts talking about why that's not a good idea for them. That there are several law firms up in San Francisco that can do just a fine job of representing them, whereas there's really only one firm down in Palo Alto that can do a good job of representing the companies they want to back . . .
Sonsini explain[ed]: "My view was that representing companies enables you to get involved at all stages of their growth. You develop a breadth and depth that makes you a better advisor and a better lawyer. It was also a fundamental part of the business plan. Many law firms at that point were focusing more on the capital markets side, representing investment banks, and to me that left a great opportunity to really develop the other side of the business."
Developing that “other side” of the business is what made everything else possible. Riding the startup/tech wave of the 1990s and 2000s; coming up with the idea to invest in the startups directly, being well positioned for the second tech boom in the 2010s. It’s easy to see how it all played out, but in the end it was a decision made decades ago that made everything possible.
Thanks for reading my first Substack article. I would love to hear any questions or feedback you have! I had originally planned to write more of these but this one took a long time so I might need a bit of a break. Hope you enjoyed!
Although we never worked together directly, watching Rodge Cohen at work broke a lot of stereotypes I had about big-shot lawyers. I once met him on the elevator and introduced myself, and I mean he was just so … humble. “Call me Rodge,” he said. A few months later I found myself in the same subway car as him after work, which was crazy because I thought he’d have a black car take him to where he needed to be. Rodge was just so unassuming, so understated and low key. Just totally different than what I had expected.
I wish I took notes on all of the things people told me about the legal tech space. They said that lawyers were dinosaurs who would never adopt technology. Or that the market size was just too small. Deep down inside I thought they were wrong. But even if they weren’t, I figured I could still make a living in that niche. These days when I look back I’m just so surprised at how wrong they were.
Years later, when faced with a career decision to go to a more successful startup vs. an unproven one, I chose the latter. For this exact reason. They made me the head of sales (which would have been impossible at any other mature startup). Not only did I develop sales skills, I learned how to manage, forecast, recruit, and deal with the day-to-day management issues that arise. Over time my unproven startup became proven, and senior executives were brought in to replace me. Which was fine. I got the experience I needed at that stage of my career.
The biggest problem I have with working in a bureaucracy is that you spend way too much time positioning yourself politically, and not enough time watching how the market is developing or playing out.
Do I still talk about money, prestige, compensation, and where we all stack up in relation to our old law school friends in group chats? You bet I do! The striver mentality never goes away I guess.
I do have a caveat here. In the beginning, taking a contrarian bet requires a lot of courage. But once you develop market insight, your perception of risk changes. For example, maybe it felt risky for Sonsini to go to a small law firm on the word of your law professor in 1966. But by the 1980s, the world had changed. Perhaps by then it was clear startups were poised for massive growth, so Larry Sonsini had more relevant information. Certainly more than Bob Latta who may not have understood how “safe” of a play betting on startups would be. So what was interpreted as courage to the outside world could have been just risk aversion, but with more relevant facts.