Larry W Sonsini, Silicon Valley’s most feared and sought-after lawyer, dresses in fine Italian suits even as the rest of the Valley — other high-priced attorneys included — ply their trades in chinos and blue Oxford shirts. He is soft-spoken and restrained, sometimes eerily quiet, in contrast to the brash and kinetic entrepreneurs and financiers who otherwise dominate the landscape.
Among those advised by Mr. Sonsini are, left, Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems and Google’s Eric Schmidt.
While the Valley can be a chummy, clubby place where even adversaries freely trade tales of children and outside activities, Mr. Sonsini would no sooner share personal information about himself, a longtime legal rival said, than a soldier at war would fraternize with an enemy combatant. In a land in which even the top executives and most successful venture capitalists generally use verbal mallets to drive home a point, he is a surgeon, adroit at using an intellectual and legal scalpel to win an argument or get his way.
Silence, in Mr. Sonsini’s case, has been golden. During his 40 years as a lawyer, Mr. Sonsini, 65, has served as legal counsel to the most prestigious venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. He helped to bring public many of the leaders of the technology boom, including Netscape Communications, Pixar, Google, Apple and Sun Microsystems. The investment banking firm of Robertson Stevens, based in San Francisco until it closed its doors in 2002, handled more than 500 initial public offerings over a 30-year period, and Mr. Sonsini was there for most of them.
“In one way or another, Larry was involved in almost every deal we underwrote,” said Sanford R. Robertson, founder of the bank that bore his name. Mr. Sonsini, who briefly served on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, is not just the area’s most influential lawyer, Mr. Robertson said, “He’s probably the most powerful person in Silicon Valley.”
Powerful, but discreet. 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 Wednesday. “I think my clients like me to be a trusted adviser with a high degree of integrity and stay out of the limelight.”
But many of Mr. Sonsini’s clients are currently in the limelight because of a growing scandal involving possible improprieties or illegalities relating to the backdating of lucrative stock options. Mr. Sonsini and his firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, based in Palo Alto, Calif., represents or represented “just under 50 percent” of Silicon Valley companies implicated in the scandal, according to a spokeswoman for the firm. That representation included offering advice on corporate governance issues like the proper handling of stock options.