Left to right: Glenn Luinenburg, Wilmer Cutler partner, and Richard Mahoney, director of Robotics at SRI, with a prototype bomb-diffusing robot.
Left to right: Glenn Luinenburg, Wilmer Cutler partner, and Richard Mahoney, director of Robotics at SRI, with a prototype bomb-diffusing robot. (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SAN FRANCISCO — On a sunny April day, entrepreneurs, students, investors and robotics enthusiasts swarmed the grounds of Wilmer’s Palo Alto office to marvel at robots roving, flying, swimming and talking. It was one of the premier events of National Robotics Week—the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party, hosted for the very first time at a law firm.

And it was Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr corporate partner Glenn Luinenburg’s relationship with Silicon Valley Robotics that brought some of the industry’s hottest tech shops, including SRI International, GIGAmacro and Revolve Robotics, to the firm’s backyard.

Though the Washington, D.C.-based firm opened its Palo Alto office in 2005, it’s still considered a newcomer to the Valley’s white-hot emerging companies market. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Cooley and Fenwick & West grew up as part of the tech industry ecosystem, forcing firms such as Wilmer to work a little harder to make connections with what could be tomorrow’s sizzling startup.

But no matter what platform emerging companies lawyers work from, they face the same fact: Most won’t ever get off the ground. Lawyers positioning themselves to sign up the most promising ones need to allocate their time and efforts accordingly—whether through informal networks, or more structured partnerships with incubators, trade groups or the like. “When you’re Wilson Sonsini, the incumbent law firm that’s recognized as a legal counselor to startups, you’re automatically one of the firms that the startups and serial entrepreneurs are going to consider, just by virtue of your brand,” said Luinenburg, who spent 12 years at Wilson Sonsini. “We have to be a little more aggressive in terms of getting in front of the startup community so they think of us in the group of potential law firms that service startups—because historically we haven’t been one of those.”

Forging relationships—and loyalty

There are almost as many ways to forge ties with emerging companies as there are emerging companies.

Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton last month became the sole legal sponsor of Runway, a new San Francisco tech incubator. That means it will give Runway $50,000 a year, and corporate partner Stephanie Zeppa and other emerging companies lawyers will hold office hours, create a content library, give talks and cohost events—and, hopefully, represent any promising startups that emerge.

Sheppard Mullin wants to build “a flourishing emerging companies practice in the Bay Area, and they’re willing to invest,” Zeppa said. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, which opened a Valley office in 2011, is the exclusive law firm sponsor of the National Minority Angel Network, an incubator for women and minority startups. As a sponsor, Womble Carlyle will partner with the organization on a series of events throughout the country. The firm is spreading its bets: It’s also a backer of Santa Clara University’s High Tech Law Institute, UC-Merced’s Innovate to Grow Event, UC-Merced’s Mobile App Challenge, the Licensing Executives Society and the Churchill Club. The whole idea behind these efforts is to forge a long-lasting relationship, said Womble Carlyle’s corporate securities partner John “Sandy” Smith. “The earlier you get connected to these companies, the more loyal they are,” he said. “What really matters is making a difference at that very early stage.”

Playing the startup field

Lawyers say exclusive arrangements aren’t the norm; most incubators and industry groups engage with multiple law firms. In fact, Wilmer’s Luinenburg said he advises Silicon Valley Robotics against exclusive relationships with law firms. “It’s not in their best interest,” he says. “They’re not getting the benefit of shopping around.”

Luinenburg says because the robotics industry is young, he can gain visibility by advising the nonprofit organization on membership and sponsorship programs, connecting members to the venture community and offering them—at this point—free counsel when they’re approached by large tech companies.

“We want to be perceived as a firm that helps the industry grow,” he said. Luinenburg says it’s also valuable to do something as simple as volunteering to be a judge at Stanford’s Startup Weekend, anything that puts you “in a room of people that are going to be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”

Lawyers with established practices can be a bit more picky when playing the startup field.

Cooley “tends to be on the short list of emerging companies seeking counsel,” says partner Kevin Rooney. So he doesn’t see value in a financial commitment or “passive sponsorship,” at least not up front. He gravitates toward relationships that offer an area of focus, a mutual benefit and a flexible time commitment. For example, he recently reached out to the community manager at Galvanize, a new incubator and workspace in San Francisco, and offered to spend the afternoon on-site.

“Free time with a lawyer is valuable for them and it’s a touch point for us; it just furthers the relationship,” he said. “Obviously, leaning into [a relationship] from one side doesn’t make sense.” His relationship with members of the startup community can be as loose as hosting an off-site firm event at an organization with a beautiful space, such as Galvanize, or participating in a panel about pitching to investors.

“One of the challenges of the early space is that there’s a lot of noise,” Rooney said. Choosing how and where to spend his time is “a gut check.”

A “network of entrepreneurs”

John Sheridan, comanaging partner of Wilson Sonsini, and leader of the firm’s business law department, said partners at his firm that target the emerging companies market tend to cast a wide net. “It’s a bit of a numbers game,” he said. “Statistically, at the very early stage, only a small set of those companies will be successful.”

Though the firm is well-known for its longtime relationship with Y-Combinator, the strategy for most partners has become “more relationship and company driven,” he said.

Cynthia Clarfield Hess, cochairwoman of Fenwick’s startups and venture capital group, says most of Fenwick’s partners take a “multiprong approach” to the emerging company space. Personally, she finds her relationships with founders most fruitful. She has worked with serial entrepreneur Nirav Tolia for 10 years, through his move from Epinions.com to Shopping.com to Fanbase.com to Nextdoor.com, and as he expands his network, she, to a degree, expands hers.

“The lifespan of a Valley company is shorter, so people tend to move around more,” she said.

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe saw opportunity to build its brand among the startup set more than five years ago, when it launched a business development program aimed at entrepreneurs called Total Access.

“At that time, Orrick wasn’t well-known in the Valley [for emerging companies work], so we felt we needed to invest in our brand,” said John Bautista, head of the firm’s emerging companies group. “We were not an incumbent, so we invested early on to gain market share in the Valley, and now we have a significant market share in the Valley.”

Bautista points to his longtime relationship with serial entrepreneur James Lindenbaum, who after selling Heroku to Salesforce.com Inc. for about $212 million founded Heavybit, a program for postseed-funded companies making developer-focused products.

“I’m advising many of the companies that have come out of that, but the relationship is with James,” said Bautista. The goal is to plug into a “network of entrepreneurs who are luminaries. Relationships with high-quality entrepreneurs result in relationships with other high-quality entrepreneurs,” he said.

It can be hard to gauge how successful some of these efforts are. But Sheppard Mullin can point to one tangible result. Tiare Ferguson, director of strategic partnerships at Runway, said the incubator chose Sheppard Mullin to be its sole legal sponsor because the firm had been “so flexible to work with and so generous in terms of willingness to try new things and active in terms of shaping this program.” When a partner at Cooley, who has a relationship with Ferguson’s former employer, NestGSV, inquired about linking up with Runway, she said she told him the incubator is sticking with one firm. “Ultimately, it’s really about the individuals, a relationship with individual partners. And I don’t think [partnering with more than one firm] is necessary if you’re partnering with a full-service firm,” she said.

Contact the reporter at npierrepont@alm.com.