SAN FRANCISCO — After nearly two decades at the helm, Fenwick & West’s iconic chairman is stepping down to make way for a new leader.

Gordon Davidson said he is giving up the firm’s top job to devote himself fully to his busy corporate practice. He will be succeeded on Jan. 1 by Richard Dickson, who chairs Fenwick’s corporate group and also sits on its executive committee. Davidson said the timing of the transition was dictated by the growing demands of his practice, which has picked up over the past two years with the financial recovery.

"We’re able to accomplish a seamless transition eons before I retire," said Davidson, who is 64. "It’s the right time. It may be a little early, but it’s not too late."

Fenwick & West transformed under Davidson’s leadership, more than doubling its head count and revenue. The firm has pondered how to replace him for more than a decade. In recent years, the firm has taken additional steps to groom the next generation, placing more young leaders on management committees, Davidson said.

The transition comes at a time of strength for the firm, which has enjoyed record-breaking financial performance for three consecutive years, Davidson said. He added that the firm will be in good hands with Dickson, whose 10 years in firm leadership positions have given him a taste of what the chairmanship will entail.

"We have a spectacular new leader," Davidson said. "I couldn’t imagine somebody more capable or better qualified."

After Davidson announced in October that he would not seek re-election, firm leaders began to reach out to partners for input on the next chairman. Their suggestions yielded a group of about 10 partners who were considered for the post, Davidson said. Partners elected Dickson on Tuesday night.

"The partnership is very unified and thrilled about it," said Douglas Cogen, who co-chairs the firm’s M&A group.

Power at Fenwick & West is vested in two key leaders: the chairman, who sets vision and strategy, and the managing partner, who executes it. Kathryn Fritz will continue to serve as managing partner. Dickson said he is eager to assume the chairmanship in January.

"In my corporate group chair responsibilities, I have spent a lot of time carrying on Gordy’s tradition of empowering and investing in other partners," he said. "I am excited about my ability to do that more broadly across the firm."

Dickson said he plans to keep the firm’s focus on life sciences and technology. No changes are planned to the firm’s management structure in light of Davidson’s departure, he added.

"I don’t expect our mission, strategy or core values to change," Dickson said. "They’ve served us extremely well."

Like his predecessor, Dickson plans to carry on his practice. Davidson said he devoted nearly 80 percent of his time to his practice as chairman in recent years. Because Davidson delegated many administrative duties to other leaders, the transition will have limited impact on the firm’s operations, said Robert Brigham, managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s practice in the Bay Area.

"In my opinion, where Gordy is most needed from Fenwick’s perspective is with clients," he said. "It’s a great move on their part to transition firm leadership to others who are very capable."

Dickson advises technology companies on issues including venture capital financings, intellectual property, joint ventures, M&A and initial public offerings. He has helped the firm adapt to evolution in the legal profession by championing new business pricing models and alternative billing arrangements, Davidson said.

His age places him squarely in the next generation, too. He is 44, less than one year older than Mitchell Zuklie, who became chairman of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe on March 31. Firms are wise to anoint younger leaders in this day and age, Brigham said.

"The practice of law is changing. Somebody that is young and talented and has energy and a lot of years ahead of him is an ideal candidate."

And the transition at Fenwick is a reminder that the founders of the Valley stalwarts are starting to age out.

"For not just Fenwick but all of the Silicon Valley leaders, it’s symbolic of the end of an era," said legal recruiter Avis Caravello. "The iconic Silicon Valley firms that were built by the Gordys and Larrys are going to be changing over and led by the next generation of leaders."

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