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The scion of Silicon Valley’s best-known lawyer is leaving his father’s firm. Matthew Sonsini — often speculated to be an heir apparent at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati — is joining Valley real estate giant The Sobrato Organization as executive vice president. A partner for seven years at the firm his father, Larry Sonsini, built from scratch, the younger Sonsini now joins a company founded by his billionaire father-in-law John Sobrato. The news came as a surprise to those who believed that Sonsini, a member of the policy and nominating committees, would become a firm leader. “I’m surprised — he’s one of the people that I certainly considered to be integral to the firm,” said David Saul, a former Wilson Sonsini lawyer now at Ropes & Gray. “I believed that his roles and responsibilities reflected the expectation that he would be one of the future leaders of the firm.” The move might not be the end of his Wilson career. Sonsini said he is not resigning from the partnership and may eventually return to the firm. “I don’t know how long the leave is going to extend and what it’s going to lead to,” Sonsini said Wednesday. “This experience is going to make me a more effective attorney, and a more effective leader.” The 41-year-old corporate lawyer has advised clients like BEA Systems, Cypress Semiconductor and LSI Corp. Now, he’ll be in a business role himself — a new challenge, he said. “I’ve been practicing for close to 16 years. It was the time to double down and practice another 16 years or try something different like putting on the principal’s hat,” Sonsini said. Although the real estate market has been hit hard in the current economic downturn, Sonsini said it’s “a time of opportunity” for Sobrato, which owns and manages a number of Silicon Valley’s well-known properties, including Apple’s and Nvidia’s headquarters. Michael Field, VP of real estate and marketing at Sobrato, said Sonsini — who is married to philanthropist Lisa Sobrato — would be a welcome addition. “He’s a member of the family, and it’s a family-owned business. The more the merrier,” Field said. “He’s an exceptionally talented individual. The question really is, why not bring him on?” The elder Sonsini praised his son in a firm press release. “We are tremendously proud that Matt will take a leadership position with The Sobrato Organization,” Larry Sonsini said. “He has made a significant contribution to the firm, both in serving clients and in exhibiting management leadership. It goes without saying that he has been, and always will be, part of the firm and the door always will be open for his return.” Sonsini said he will miss the firm. He said he didn’t “know whether it’s been the expectation” that he would take a leadership role at the firm, but said he always sought to contribute to the firm in whatever way he could. The elder Sonsini currently serves as chairman of the firm. Corporate lawyer John Roos stepped into the CEO role in 2005. Jeffrey Saper serves as vice chairman. Another former colleague, Isaac Vaughn, who worked closely with the younger Sonsini, said he hadn’t expected him to leave. “I am a little surprised, only because Matt was such an exceptional lawyer. I probably assumed that, like his father, he’d be a lifelong partner at Wilson,” Vaughn said. “But at the same time, Matt’s always been his own guy, and he was always very comfortable at a place where his father was a very dominant figure.” Sonsini worked at Cooley Godward Kronish, becoming partner there before joining Wilson. Wilson has lost a number of partners over the last year, including veteran litigator Robert Feldman and fund formation lawyer Jonathan Axelrad. Still, the departures didn’t hurt the bottom line — the firm turned in very strong financial results for 2007.

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