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Larry Sonsini: The Lawyer Behind Silicon Valley’s Famous Innovators

Larry Sonsini is the founding partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Silicon Valley’s premier law firm founded the 1961. Sonsini personally advised founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, and has worked with Sun Microsystems, Intel, Google, HP, LinkedIn, Netflix, Salesforce, Dropbox, Twitter and hundreds more. Sonsini is the vice chair of Santa Clara’s Board of Trustees.

Sonsini got his undergraduate and J.D. from UC Berkeley in the 1963 & `66, and has focused on corporate law, corporate governance, securities, and mergers and acquisitions. He has been instrumental in many of the financings, IPOs, mergers, acquisitions, and other key transactions of Silicon Valley and beyond. Fun fact: Sonsini’s son Matthew is married to the sister, Lisa, of previous guest John M. Sobrato.

A 2006 NY Times profile called Sonsini, “Powerful, but rarely center stage. While Mr. Sonsini is hardly a shrinking violet, he cultivates the image of Silicon Valley’s most ubiquitous supporting player, often preferring to say his lines behind the scenes. ‘It’s not my job to be in the newspapers,’ he said in a telephone interview. ‘I think my clients like me to be a trusted adviser with a high degree of integrity and stay out of the limelight.’”

In this conversation, we discuss what Sonsini has learned about leadership from the CEOs he worked with, what innovations he believes will define the future, the ethics of entrepreneurship, the history and trajectory of Silicon Valley, how he chooses how to spend his time, and his advice for students.

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Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What were you considering for a career when you graduated college?

Larry Sonsini: I attended the UC Berkeley, and I was focused mainly on two paths. One believe it or not was medicine. The other was business or law… mainly law. Entering my junior year I began to realize that I was very intrigued with the idea of corporate law and made that choice.

GC: How did you make the decision to come to Silicon Valley and go with the more entrepreneurial route?

LS: Well it's truly an entrepreneurial story. When I graduated from Berkeley law I pretty much was focused on the area of corporate law corporate, finance and securities. I thought for that kind of practice that I would probably have to be in a big city like New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles.

However one of my key professors professor Dick Jennings who at the time was a leading professor on the U.S. federal securities laws told me that something interesting was happening down on the peninsula here and mentioned that there was a gentleman named John Wilson who was starting very early firm that was going to focus on areas that I was interested in. So sure enough I decided to have an interview with John and the rest is history.

In a way it was a risk to take but it was exciting in an opportunity to get involved very early on in on the area of the law that idea became fond and now it seems so obvious that everything was incredibly successful. Silicon Valley became the worldwide hub for innovation but it wasn't necessarily guaranteed in the in the late `60s and 70s.

GC: Who were some of the more impressive like leaders that you worked with? What were some leadership lessons you learned from those people?

LS: Well there were many and I was very fortunate to have been involved in representing. Certainly, I remember Bob Noyce who started Intel. What I learned from Bob was how to be humble. He was a very intelligent man but he was humble and generous.

Steve Jobs who I represented for over 35 years was one of the quickest studies I've ever met. He had a passion and stay committed to his vision. He was a person who could not easily be distracted from his passion and always pushed the edge of the envelope. I learned a lot from that and there were many others.

GC: What do you think some of the main differences are between Silicon Valley startups that have become well-known names and those that have failed?

LS: Sometimes it's all about timing. Often times you can have a great idea great entrepreneurial concept in the market is just not ready for it. Other times it's a cost or benefit problem a great idea that's too expensive. Other times it's just competition. Sometimes it’s inability to sustain innovation.

One of the key things that I've learned in representing these entrepreneurs is that you have to be able to adapt to change. You have to constantly reinvent and sometimes the failure to do that in a timely manner [kills you].

Often times the most successful company does not have the brightest idea. Once you have an idea, you have to build the infrastructure, attract the right talent, develop a business culture of ethics, integrity, and hard work, develop commercial relationships, deal with competition… it's a complicated formula to become successful.

GC: Steve Jobs is famous for both his creative innovative spirit but also for sometimes having questionable interpersonal relationships. We see a lot of people in Silicon Valley so hard-driving and ambitious that sometimes that stepping on other people's toes or pushing their way into innovation. Is it necessary to be this kind of dominant visionary leader to be innovative?

LS: Of course it doesn't require that type of personality. You can be humble and be very successful. You also have to delineate the difference between aggressive interpersonal behavior and integrity and ethics. One does not necessarily mean that the other is not present. 

Often times one's passion and the pressure to drive into the trenches creates impatience and lack of communication with people.

I think Steve was that way. I've found Steve to be a very ethical person and had very high integrity to his vision but he could be impatient. But his impatience was just due to his passion.

No one personality type is going to be more successful than another. I think that the commonality is the desire to aspire, the desire to take risks, the desire to be fully committed and passionate, the willingness to work hard and to set aside a lot of personal demands… those are common characteristics. But the personality, the interpersonal behaviors, are all over the map.

GC: Business has always appealed to me is because of the huge impacts that companies can make on society. Do you think that companies and corporations will be able to take into account things other than financial maximization like climate change and other societal challenges?

LS: That's the question of the day. One of the major is, what is the role of the corporation? Or better put, what is the purpose of corporation?

I do think that's an old question that is renewed because even the beginning of corporations and the question was asked, what does the public get as the quid pro quo for limited liability that you enjoy as a shareholder? I do think that corporations can and should be good citizens of the world.

I think that they can still innovate they can still make money. They can still grow but they can also have sound impact. I think you can correlate good governance with good shareholder value. We've lived since the 1970s under a legal governance regime that basically says that the primary fiduciary duties of the board of directors of the corporation is to enhance shareholder value.

Today we see a rhetoric that is somewhat changing… that it should be it's not only shareholder value but stakeholder value: customers, employees, society. We are working through that so it's a great question and it's something I think we have to address.

GC: How do you create like a positive culture that will last after you leave?

LS: I think first of all I have to pay attention to it. I think that it's one thing to have a vision, then you need a mission which is how are we going to execute to get to that vision. But then you need a culture which is the platform that ties it all together.

In my law firm, culture had many elements. It was based on diversity, it was based on transparency, it was based upon consensus management, it was based upon ethics, autonomy to practice, and so on. I think that was something I learned very early on by representing companies because every board meeting I attended in the early days and even today I always ask [about culture].

GC: Earlier you brought up education and kind of the changing models of higher education. What do you think Santa Clara's role in relation to Silicon Valley is and can be moving forward?

LS: I spend a lot of time thinking about higher education. I'm involved with a number of universities, and certainly believe that our educational system is critical to have been a good, free society and to deal with disparities that exist. I think our universities are are some of the best in the world but they're challenged and economic models are challenging the cost of education this challenging but it's critical.

When I think of Santa Clara I find that besides being a great campus with wonderful faculty and staff, that the Jesuit philosophy upon which is built upon is very important.

The values focusing upon educating the whole person, focusing upon justice and ethics and integrity, I find that all the more needed today. I think Santa Clara brings something to the table that's very important, I think Stanford bring something to the table, I think Berkeley and all the others but I think they're all unique and I think we need that diversity.

Santa Clara's of philosophy helps us keep perspective on the challenges that I just discussed. 

I think that there is a role for that philosophy that's more important than ever when we talk about the whole person, when we talk about social justice, when we talk about things like sustainability, so I'm very excited and that's why I am involved. I’m not alone but I very much believe in this in the university and put in a lot of time into it because I think it is important.

GC: What career advice would you give to college students?

LS: I think it's really important to continue to aspire, to dream. It’s not important to have a career decision early on but I think what's important is to try to learn as much as you can about what is going on. I think that maintaining confidence and self-assurance matters. It's daunting out there, but it's always been daunting. I think to be confident, to be open to change too, really developing a willingness to follow your passion. Find out what really motivates you and don't be afraid to follow that. Be kind to yourself. Being open and diverse and acting with high integrity pays off in the long run.

GC: What in your career you most proud of?

LS: I'm proud of being a part of—and I suppose at times a key part—of the growth of this technology industry, and the benefits that I think it's bringing in society.

GC: If you could send a message to every person in the United States what would you want to say?

LS: I would say that it's time to pull together and us remember that the philosophy of this country of equal opportunity for all is still the best system and will get us through the challenges that are coming.

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