Stephen Neal, the chairman of Cooley, dishes with The Careerist about his competitors, the type of hire who succeeds at his firm, and why his shop is one of the “nice” firms in Silicon Valley.

Your firm is part of the old guard in Silicon Valley—along with Fenwick West and Wilson Sonsini. So what makes Cooley different from those firms?
We are more diverse in practice and in geography. The biggest difference is that Cooley has built out a full-service law firm that can also handle traditional work—not just emerging companies. We’re a 100-year old institution. We know how to do generational transitions. We want to raise the next generation of lawyers and support them in a way that will contribute to their stability.

Are you saying your competitors lack the ability to make a smooth transition to the next generation?
Fenwick hasn’t been around as long as we have. But Gordy [Davidson, chair of Fenwick until May 2013] is handling it over to the next generation [Richard Dickson is new chair], and he will do it effectively. At Wilson, it will be more dramatic when Larry [Sonsini] steps down. They have a fiefdom there.

It sounds like there’s more cultural similarity between your firm and Fenwick.
Culturally, we’re fiercely institutional and won’t tolerate noninstitutional behavior. It is built into our DNA that the client is first, and we are religious about stressing team work. Our compensation system reflects that. It is more of an old fashioned model. Gordy is probably more similar to us.

So is Cooley a kinder and gentler firm than Wilson Sonsini?
Wilson is more rough-and-tumble. Wilson is quite siloed; partners bring in clients and hoard them. I don’t think that’s the example Larry has set, but they don’t have the same incentives we have of discouraging sharp elbows and client hoarding.

Let’s talk about what else you look for in new hires. Would someone who succeeds at your firm be very different from someone who might succeed at an East Coast firm—say, Cravath or Sullivan & Cromwell?
I don’t think so. We compete with those firms. The difference is that we represent emerging companies where we represent clients who are starting business out of their garage. Our lawyers have to relate to entrepreneurs who tend to be young; lawyers have to display good judgment and be able to move quickly. How quickly can you move when you represent IBM at Cravath?

Who won’t succeed at Cooley?
People who don’t have basic firepower and good basic skills. You try to help some of them out, but it doesn’t always work out. If someone doesn’t work out, it’s because their [legal] skills or ability to inspire confidence are lacking. Some just don’t want to work very hard.

How hard do people work at Cooley?
Very hard. But we don’t press our people to work 2,200 hours a year. A lot of our people work 1,700 to 1,800 hours … we’ll make adjustments based on hours.

You don’t have minimum hour requirements?

I assume you compete against the other Silicon Valley firms for both talent and clients.
Oh yeah. We’re competitors, but with mutual respect. I don’t hesitate to tell people to call Larry [Sonsini] or Boris Feldman [of Wilson Sonsini] if there’s a conflict.

It all sounds very incestuous.
I know.