Many technology law gurus throughout Silicon Valley claim to have been there at the creation. William Fenwick can claim to have been there before the creation. While a student in 1968, Fenwick authored a dissertation titled "Automation and the Law: The Challenge to the Attorney." The paper's conclusions must have been happy ones, as Fenwick and colleagues (including now-retired name partner Henry West: at the time, a refugee from New York's Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton) set out to provide sophisticated legal services in the next high-tech mecca. After considering promising locations in Florida and North Carolina, the founders eventually settled on Palo Alto, and opened shop in 1974.

Good people, good clients, and great IP

Associates love their colleagues at Fenwick & West, and many name them as the best thing about working there. "As law firms go, I don't think you can do better," remarked one associate. Another says, "It's a good firm with good people and interesting work." The praise doesn't end there. A mid-level associate explains further: "This place is definitely one of the best places to work. As a lateral, I can't imagine working anywhere else. They really treat us well." The firm makes sure there are plenty of opportunities for associates to get together - from firm dinners to "more parties and events than anyone wants to attend."

Associates rave about Fenwick & West's "exciting cutting-edge work," culled from "interesting clients." "If you are into high tech law, the client base is second to none," brags an insider. And the ability to hobnob with "lots of dynamic, brilliant young entrepreneurs and engineers" is an unofficial perk associates gush about.

To hear more about Fenwick, check out their recent profile on San Francisco's KFOG radio: KFOG audio

A down home Silicon Valley success story

As it heads into the 21st century, Fenwick continues to ride a wave of unqualified success. Although shunning the rapid geographical expansion undertaken by Bay Area competitors, Fenwick has seen its coffers continue to swell - 1998's $88 million revenues represented a 35 percent increase over 1997's figures. In 1999, the firm reported another year of impressive growth with $100.8 million in revenues and profits-per-partner among the highest in Silicon Valley. Beyond the shimmering client list, firm chairman Gordon Davidson has indicated several reasons for Fenwick's good fortunes. First, the firm insists on collecting bills. "We use it as a management tool to get everyone focused on collection," Davidson told The Business Journal in February 1999, adding: "Many law firms are notoriously bad business managers or work for clients who don't pay." Second, Davidson has noted that Fenwick's average for billable hours for partners exceeds that for its associates. Finally, Fenwick has boosted productivity by upping its associate / partner ratio from 2:1 to 3:1.

I want to be free!

Fenwick associates enjoy a unique free market system that allows the associates "to move between practice groups and work with different partners." Associates are empowered to seek out the deals they wish to work on and the partners they wish to work with, allowing for a broad range of work. Associates remark that this system is especially attractive to "those who desire to be able to create their own practice" down the road. Many an associate piled on praise for the "flexibility" the free market system provides "in setting [their] own career path." Besides great career possibilities, associates feel that the free market approach creates a "congenial atmosphere" and helps the firm receive high marks for satisfaction across the board.

Corporate work, Palo Alto style

Unlike many firms of similar size, corporate work supplies the largest chunk (around 40 percent) of Fenwick's revenues. The firm's corporate attorneys focus primarily on the following areas: Venture Backed Start-Up Companies, Emerging Companies, Mergers and Acquisitions, Public Offerings and Securities Law Compliance, and Executive Compensation. On the M&A end, notable deals include VeriSign's $17 billion acquisition of Network Solutions Inc., Excite's $7.2 billion merger with @Home, and Veritas Software's $2 billion acquisition of the NSMG software division of Seagate Technology. In September 1999, Fenwick helped Cupertino-based Adforce through a $500 million acquisition by Massachusetts-based Internet networking powerhouse CMGI Inc. Fenwick has also had a hand in a long list of high profile public offerings, including those for @Home, eBay, Excite, Flycast Communications, Intuit, Onsale, and Marketwatch.com. Other corporate clients include Sun Microsystems, Symantec, Integrated Systems, Corel, and companies in nearly every high-tech nook.

Associates control their own hours?

Thanks to the free market system, the Fenwick associates ultimately decides their own fate. As one lucky corporate attorney explains: "In the free market system it is always your own fault if you work too hard. Associates estimate they bill "250 fewer hours annually" than their counterparts at other Bay area firms. "The firm is very good about allowing associates to choose their own lifestyle. Those that wish to bill 1800 are certainly allowed."

Litigation potential

Despite the predominance of corporate work, Fenwick's traditional strengths have been in litigation. In the early days, the firm handled much of Apple's litigation needs, and William Fenwick himself litigates across a wide variety of areas. Litigation work draws about 30 percent of Fenwick's revenues, although The American Lawyer in August 1999 noted that the group "represents Fenwick's greatest area of untapped potential." Fenwick's litigators specialize in the following areas: Antitrust, Franchise and Distribution; Complex Business Disputes; Counterfeiting/"Piracy"/Gray Marketing; Copyright; Employment and Labor; Federal Trade Commission; Intellectual Property Ownership and Transfers; Internet/Online Commerce; Patents Securities; Software Performance; Tax Litigation; Trade Secrets/Unfair Competition; Trademark; and White Collar Crime.

The door is always open - but many will never use it

Associates at Fenwick believe that their firm has one of the best retention rates in the region. "Relatively speaking, retention is pretty good here. All Silicon Valley firms lose associates to dot com startups, but we don't lose very many at all to other firms. The feeling seems to be that if you're going to work at a law firm, this is a good place to be," explains one associate.

Fenwick's IP menace

Although the firm has been largely successful in shaking its image as an "Intellectual Property Boutique," the firm's IP group continues to be a center of core competency. A significant number of the lawyers in the group and other practice groups of the firm have technical degrees including advanced degrees in engineering, computer science, mathematics and other technical disciplines and substantial experience working as programmers, engineers, and other roles in various high technology industries. These technical skills enable the firm to render some of the most sophisticated advice anywhere in the world with respect to cutting-edge technologies and the intellectual property rights related to them. Attorneys in the group have lectured widely and published articles concerning newly emerging issues raised by the development, application and commercialization of technology.

A culture that fosters mutual respect

At Fenwick, "everyone (including staff) is treated with respect" according to an insider. Another lawyer agrees, attributing this to a "firm culture" that "fosters mutual respect" all around. And why not? It's easy when the people you work with are "bright and friendly, with interesting backgrounds." Most associates at Fenwick agree with the litigator who notes that "associates generally get along very well with each other and the partners." A member of the "cohesive" tax group remarks "many of us have outside activities that we do together." And a corporate associate finds this to be a firm-wide phenomenon, informing Vault.com that "Fenwick attorneys are quite friendly and social, particularly within practice groups," but luckily, "the firm has few cliques."

Fenwick makes the list

According to Fortune magazine, Fenwick & West might really be the best firm on earth to work for. Fenwick was one of two law firms to make the magazine's annual "Best Companies to Work For" list in February 1999, and again in January 2000. Juicy perks helped propel the firm onto the list - the firm owns two condos (Maui and Park City, Utah), which they make available to associates. Those associates working particularly hard entitle themselves to impromptu weekends at the condos, or at other destinations such as Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or Disneyland (airfare included, bien sur.)

Good mentoring

Mentoring at Fenwick is great too - thanks to that free market system the associates rave about. "As a general rule, Fenwick attorneys are eager to help and train more junior attorneys," notes one associate. A Palo Alto second year further boasts, "Even when they are really busy, the partners and senior associates take the time to keep you in the loop and add context to the transaction."

The great mentoring from partners seems to carry over to the partnership track too, as associates note that "partners counsel associates as they become more senior about how to improve or change to make partner."

Say no to the startups and you too can be a partner

Unlike many firms, associates at Fenwick are enthusiastic about the "excellent" opportunities to make partner. A mid-level associate informs Vault.com that "every committed, competent attorney has a very good chance at making partner," and many others express similar opinions. "Most people who are still with the firm as seventh years have made it to partnership" observes a senior corporate attorney.