The Rainmakers of '74

Mark Estes

When Gordon Davidson graduated from the Law School in 1974, he'd already had one career as an electrical engineer at the Stanford Research Institute. Looking for a way to merge his technology background with his new legal skills, Davidson ended up staying in the place that had only recently been dubbed Silicon Valley. His Law School friends, migrating to the big firms in San Francisco, thought he was nuts. "Why would you want to practice in Palo Alto?" he remembers one asking. "There are no good restaurants there."

Valley dining options have improved in the last 25 years (a typical entrée at Palo Alto's Il Fornaio: grilled pork chops stuffed with saffron-pistachio cream cheese). But that's nothing compared with the changes that have spawned the high-tech law business. As Silicon Valley exploded, a new breed of attorney emerged to handle the endless swapping of ideas, capital and talent that fuels the wired economy. These lawyers negotiate the deals, mediate the disputes and help match up partners among the Valley's players. Increasingly, they invest in the deals themselves. And, being lawyers, they get mixed up in all the big fights.

Four attorneys from the Law School's Class of '74, it turns out, are among the prominent practitioners of this specialty. Davidson, '70, MS '71, JD '74, and classmates Alan Austin, Gary Reback and Craig Johnson have a hand in most of Silicon Valley's landmark deals and epic legal battles. Davidson, 51, is chairman of Fenwick & West, which has shepherded some of the decade's hottest Internet stock offerings; Austin, 50, now manages Palo Alto-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, California's largest firm; Reback, 50, has been nicknamed "the Microsoft menace" for the tenacious way he's challenged Bill Gates and his software empire; and Johnson, 52, founded the Venture Law Group, a paradigm-smashing hybrid that's part legal practice, part venture capital firm.

It shouldn't be surprising that these four emerged from the Class of '74. The law graduates that year were a little different from the groups before or since. As it happened, most were older than typical law students. Many were married and had served in the military. And graduating in the wake of antiwar demonstrations, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, they were shaped by the nation's political upheaval. "The Class of 1974 was the most impressive group I encountered in 42 years of law teaching," says William Cohen, a constitutional scholar who retired in June. Even for a school that attracts some of the brightest law students in the country, Cohen says, that year's class stood out for its collective intelligence and ambition.

As chairman of Palo Alto's Fenwick & West, Davidson has guided the firm as it pioneered Y2K litigation and handled such transactions as last year's wildly successful initial public offering of Internet-auction phenomenon eBay (in its first four months the stock's value increased nearly thirtyfold). One measure of Davidson's success: Fenwick's average per-partner profits are close to the highest in California, topping $600,000 last year. Fenwick was the only law practice included on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 best places to work last year.

Just across the street, Austin presides as managing partner and all-around rainmaker for 530-attorney Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Its client list reads like a who's who in Valley high tech: Silicon Graphics, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Sun Microsystems, InfoSeek, Applied Materials and Netscape Communications. The firm also represents some of the most important venture capital outfits, including the Mayfield Fund, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital and U.S. Venture Partners.

Austin may run Wilson Sonsini, but his partner Reback has a higher profile. For three years, 1995-98, he represented Netscape and led a legal crusade against Microsoft's industry dominance. Reback, who worked his way through Yale as a computer programmer for its economics department, almost single-handedly convinced a federal judge to re-examine the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft in 1995. Although he spent six years practicing law in Washington, D.C., the Valley lured him back, he says, because it's "populated by young people, in contrast with the East, where you have to carry somebody's briefcase for a very long time."

But even that pace wasn't fast enough for Johnson, who left Wilson Sonsini in 1993 with the idea of creating a new kind of law firm. Today his Venture Law Group in Menlo Park is the prototype of a firm that serves as legal adviser, business consultant, investor and -- on occasion -- executive recruiter. The 80-attorney firm has helped launch dozens of start-ups, including eToys, Yahoo! and A former Peace Corps volunteer, Johnson had planned to be an environmental lawyer. But he "fell in love" with corporate projects working one summer for a Los Angeles attorney with a burgeoning tech practice. "It dawned on me that I was sitting on a hotbed of technology right here in Silicon Valley," he says.

The Class of '74 plans to reassemble for its 25th reunion in October; but for Davidson, Austin, Reback and Johnson, it will in some ways be just another day in the Valley legal biz. "It's not a big place here," Austin says. "We encounter each other professionally." Still, they'll have at least three good reasons to attend. The reunion will feature a symposium with some Stanford alumni who did pretty well in the legal profession -- even if they left the Valley: U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O'Connor, '50, JD '52, Stephen Breyer, '59, and Anthony Kennedy, '58.

Leslie A. Gordon, MA '98, is a reporter for the Daily Journal, a San Francisco newspaper covering legal affairs.