Change is afoot at the most enigmatic law firm in Silicon Valley.
Well-known to the open-collared, chino-wearing venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road, Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian has always avoided the spotlight occupied by other Valley firms. At the same time, the out-of-the-box thinking of the 100-lawyer firm’s leader Robert Gunderson Jr. has made it a trendsetter for the legal industry.
From popularizing the business-casual uniform now so awkwardly sported by lawyers everywhere to firing the first shot in the associate salary wars during the dot-com boom, the little firm founded in 1995 has never ceased to surprise.
Now Gunderson is setting out to move where no other law firm has ventured. It’s moving from Menlo Park to the east side of Highway 101 (oh, the stigma) past the old Cargill Salt factory, and right into the heart of the salt flats on the shores of Redwood City. (Perhaps you’ve smelled them while driving across the Dumbarton Bridge.)
Yes, Gunderson lawyers are going back to the salt mines.
“It is a very interesting location, to say the least,” said George Fox, a real estate broker with Studley who wasn’t involved in the deal. “We’ve never seen a law firm pull the trigger and go out there. ? But when you think about Gunderson, they’ve always done something a little bit different, so it’s good for them.”
Aside from the obvious attraction of the rich history of salt gathering the native Ohlone collected it along the shores and John Johnson, a sea captain and failed gold-miner, made a fortune selling salt during the Gold Rush Gunderson Dettmer will have interesting neighbors. No law firms, but DreamWorks and Openwave are in the same shiny business park, Pacific Shores on Seaport Boulevard. And the rent is pretty damn cheap.
Michael Courson, a broker with NAI BT Commercial who represented Gunderson’s new landlord in the 100,000-square-foot deal, said a square foot goes for $2.50 a month at Pacific Shores. That’s cheaper than the more than $3 a square foot most pay around Constitution Drive in Menlo Park, where Gunderson is now occupying two neighboring buildings. And much cheaper than Palo Alto, where law firms are clustered like so many fearful sheep in a tightly gathered herd.
It looks like a smart, if unorthodox, move to save money in trying economic times for corporate lawyers. Perhaps a sign that Gunderson isn’t doing so well? Robert Gunderson said that’s not why the firm is moving.
“We had a terrific year last year, and all signs point to us having a very good year this year,” Gunderson wrote in an e-mail. “Those of us in Menlo Park (staff, lawyers, etc.) are excited about our move to Pacific Shores. We’re very much looking forward to all being together again under one roof.”
OK, if you think Gunderson lawyers joining the great tradition of Redwood City salt miners isn’t that big a deal, there’s also this: The firm has shaken up its top management.
The firm has been controlled by Gunderson and three other name partners Scott Dettmer, Steven Franklin and Jay Hachigian but recently the management committee was expanded to 12 members. It now includes all six name partners and up-and-comer Daniel O’Connor as well as other younger partners from the firm’s out-of-town offices in New York, Boston and San Diego.
Rumor on the street was that it was done to placate a group of New York partners who were threatening to leave (not a rumor) and join rival Cooley Godward Kronish. But Gunderson countered that, saying it was “unrelated to the New York issue.”
“For a variety of reasons we felt it was right to increase the committee size to add younger partners, to add representatives of offices outside of Menlo Park, etc.,” Gunderson wrote.
Of course, you won’t find any press releases from the firm and you won’t find any updates on the firm’s spartan Web site or much of anything for that matter. Associates aren’t listed and neither are the direct phone numbers for partners. Some say it’s a ploy to keep headhunters at bay, others say its because the firm is so cool it doesn’t feel the need to advertise itself or make flashy statements to impress people.
So the salt flats are looking like a perfect move.