James McManis and Larry Sonsini
OUT IN FRONT: For decades, James McManis ’67 (left) and Larry Sonsini ’66 have deftly wrangled with legal issues emerging from the tech industry’s exponential growth. Photo by Jim Block

Two Valley Titans Reflect

arry Sonsini ’66 and James McManis ’67 overlapped at Berkeley Law, and on a good day you can drive between their Silicon Valley firms in under 30 minutes. But their experiences have been far different.

Sonsini, a founding partner of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, is a renowned titan in the corporate governance world and his firm has shepherded some of the Valley’s biggest IPOs and deals. McManis has been a different kind of entrepreneur, building a successful litigation firm, McManis Faulkner, that he jokingly refers to as “a little mom and pop business here in San Jose” — the Shire to Wilson Sonsini’s Mordor.

Despite their divergent paths, both have enjoyed a front-row seat to the tech industry’s explosive growth and all the issues it has raised, from patents and intellectual property to how to manage artificial intelligence.

“You want to build a law firm with an eye on sustainability, and I think it all begins with culture,” Sonsini says. “We focused a lot on entrepreneurialism, diversity, and commitment to a particular plan, which was really to serve the technology industry, while emphasizing a culture of autonomy at the same time.

“That’s been our perspective from an early startup phase to an established law firm (now 17 offices across five countries with about 950 lawyers). When we started 56 years ago, we had to really build on basic principles, and we’re still doing that today.”

McManis, who founded his firm with his wife (a UC Berkeley alumna) running the business side, likens hanging his own shingle to diving into the deep end of a pool.

“You’ve got to hold your nose and jump in, and if you’re going to be successful, you have to work, work, work,” he says. “My wife and I work seven days a week. You’ve got to be an entrepreneur and a risk-taker, and you’ve got to surround yourself with very good people.

“It’s very satisfying as a firm leader to take your values — what I think are good values, anyway — and pass those on to other lawyers. I think I’ve raised a lot of good lawyers.”

With the technology industry becoming a linchpin of society, Sonsini says, companies are increasingly disruptive as the pace of innovation accelerates. He foresees both the legal and regulatory spheres continuing to ascend in influence — and careful thinking and cooperation being more important than ever.

“I think we can improve our society with it, but there are going to be times that are even more challenging,” Sonsini says. “I think we’re seeing some of that today.”

While Sonsini and McManis are able to reflect on what they’ve built over more than five decades, they also remain highly engaged. Their commitment to Berkeley Law (both have received the annual Citation Award, the school’s highest honor), the practice of law, and propelling Silicon Valley’s legal landscape remains unwavering.

“People say, ‘Jim, get a life!’” McManis says. “And I reply, ‘I’ve got the best life imaginable.’”

— Gwyneth K. Shaw