Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How San Fran law firms pursue tech start-up clients in the "new normal"

From today's New York Times Dealbook:

Law Firms Mine San Francisco for Internet Start-Up Gold

The ground floor of 139 Townsend Street has all the markings of a start-up: exposed lighting, long communal tables and an odd assortment of knickknacks, including a fire-engine-red British telephone booth.

But the brick industrial building, in San Francisco’s SoMa district, is not the home of Twitter, Zynga or another up-and-coming Internet company. It’s the office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the half-century-old law firm.

“There’s a marketing benefit,” said Yoichiro Taku, a partner at Wilson Sonsini who represents many early-stage companies. “It definitely makes us hipper.”

Wilson Sonsini’s new outpost reflects the firm’s evolving mind-set as lawyers jockey for the attention of start-ups. In an effort to build credibility among new technology companies, Wilson Sonsini and others are employing a broad set of tools, including offering free services, cozying up to incubators and writing blogs.

Such efforts are critical. While early-stage ventures represent just 20 percent of the firm’s business, those companies can generate hefty fees as they mature. Wilson Sonsini and other firms also make small investments in young start-ups, which can pay off in later years.

“Small deals would not have interested these firms a few years ago,” said Joseph A. Grundfest, a Stanford law professor. “Now, it’s the new normal.”

. . . .

For big law firms, courting young companies is something of a balancing act. On the one hand, a firm wants to reach the highest number of top-shelf start-ups. But it has limited resources, so it has to be choosy.

To that end, many have taken steps to reduce the cost of early-stage venture financing for entrepreneurs, while automating the process to make it easier for lawyers. Fenwick & West has been at the forefront of this trend. Two years ago, the law firm created and posted standardized deal documents online for free downloading.

Earlier this month, Wilson Sonsini teamed up with AngelList, a network for investors and entrepreneurs, to also offer free standardized deal documents online. Although start-ups can use any law firm to process the forms, Wilson Sonsini has offered to do it pro bono if a start-up becomes a client.

“We’re trying to show we can add value to the community.” said Mr. Carpenter, who worked on the AngelList project with Mr. Taku and Mr. Bochner. “So hopefully, when these start-ups need a lawyer, they think of us.”

Continue reading here.



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