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Alan Austin has long been viewed by colleagues as the least likely lawyer after firm Chairman Larry Sonsini to leave Palo Alto, Calif.’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. But on Wednesday Austin said he would do just that, departing the firm in July to join Palo Alto-based Accel Partners, a leading venture capital firm, as a partner and chief executive officer. “Venture capital is very exciting to me — always has been,” Austin said. At age 51, he said, he’s ready to take on one more new and different career challenge before retiring. “I feel like I’ve kind of plateaued, and I’m not a person who plateaus very well — I need to be either climbing up the hill or going down the other side,” Austin said. Austin’s decision comes just a month after Wilson revamped its management structure. The executive committee was dismantled, Austin relinquished his title as managing partner, and the firm splintered management responsibilities among several partners. Austin remained a part of the management team, taking on the title of managing director in charge of operations. Even though the new management structure coincides with his decision to leave the firm, Austin said the two events are unrelated. At least six other partners have left Wilson Sonsini since last fall to join companies or investment firms. They are among a growing population in the Silicon Valley, lawyers who tire of law firm life and choose to become deal-doers. Though such moves have become more commonplace, word that Austin — considered the lawyer most likely to take Sonsini’s place as chairman — was leaving sent shock waves through Silicon Valley’s legal community. Former colleague Craig Johnson, who recruited Austin to Wilson Sonsini from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in 1987, was practically speechless. “He fit the Wilson culture perfectly; he was a natural leader,” Johnson said, speaking in a halting tone that suggested disbelief. Johnson left Wilson in 1993 to found Venture Law Group, a corporate boutique in Menlo Park, Calif. Wilson’s managing partner for the past four and a half years, Austin has worked in concert with other partners on most of his client matters, so his departure will not likely result in tremendous shuffling of work. Nor will his departure create a significant vacuum on the day-to-day operations because of the revamped management structure. But Austin’s absence is likely to have significant psychological impact on Wilson. Well-liked and highly respected, he’s helped lead the firm in its explosive growth from less than 100 lawyers in 1987 to nearly 700 today. “We’ve been together a long time,” said Sonsini. “But this is a wonderful opportunity for him — he said they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Sonsini said the management changes in the last month reflect the massive growth of the firm. In 1999, Wilson pulled down $296 million in revenue. He said the firm needed a structure that “pulled in more people” in the decision-making process. “With a vertical structure, Alan and I became a bottleneck on some issues,” Sonsini said. “What other great business has no board of directors and a part-time manager?” Sonsini added. “This is a business that’s going to $400 million in revenue and 700 lawyers, and we need to have a management structure for it.” Under the new structure, partner Jeffrey Saper took over the firm’s strategic planning, partner John Roos assumed a new position overseeing resource allocation and practice group direction and partners Steven Schatz and Barry Taylor took over partner compensation. Also on the new executive management committee are name partner Mario Rosati, who heads the firm’s investments, and Donald Bradley, the firm’s in-house counsel. Austin said the changes in the management structure did not spur him to move on, and he said he had even rebuffed the headhunter who had called in early April pitching the Accel opportunity. The headhunter’s hook worked some magic, however, and Austin said he couldn’t shake his curiosity about the job. After consulting with his family, Austin contacted the headhunter and suggested they meet for coffee, at least. At Accel, Austin will manage the operations of the venture capital firm, which recently launched a partnership with venerable buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and has raised a new investment fund totaling $1.4 billion. With money gushing into the venture capital industry, which collectively raised a total of $46.55 billion in new investment capital last year alone, venture firms are increasingly pressed to differentiate themselves, Austin said. He is being brought aboard in a newly created position at Accel to help with the strategic direction of the firm, as well as take over its day-to-day operations. “One of the things that qualifies me for this job,” Austin said, “is I understand the dynamics of working for a partnership which is consensus driven, and requires a great deal of listening.”

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