Sunset in Santa Monica, CA. Credit: Natalia Macheda/Shutterstock.com
If the traffic isn't too bad—and, granted, that's a pretty big if—it only takes about half an hour to drive from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. But 30 minutes is a long time in the fast-paced tech and startup community.
As the so-called “Silicon Beach” continues to draw entrepreneurs, more and more law firms have followed their clients to West Los Angeles, each claiming its territory in the fast-growing tech hub.
But legal recruiters who have known the market for years are wary that Los Angeles, a market traditionally known for entertainment and media, might not have enough qualified legal talent to fill the needs of those firms.
Just this month, two Am Law 100 firms, Goodwin Procter and Fenwick & West, announced office openings in Santa Monica as they seek to represent the startups and emerging companies in the region. Their rival Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe opened its Silicon Beach outpost in 2017, while Cooley, another Silicon Valley law firm, planted its flag in Santa Monica years ago, in 2012.
Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian has also set up a small office in Venice Beach, just a few miles south of Santa Monica. According to Built In LA, an online community for Los Angeles startups and tech companies, the area referred to as Silicon Beach stretches from Santa Monica to Venice and includes communities as far as Hermosa Beach.
“The lateral market is going to heat up,” said legal recruiter Avery Ellis, executive managing director of Mestel & Co. “So the question is, are there tech lawyers or not? Or are people going to become tech lawyers?”
A Different History
Unlike Silicon Valley, where established tech-focused law firms have long been cultivating lawyers in the emerging companies space, the major indigenous law firms in Los Angeles aren’t known for practices tailored to that client base, Ellis said.
Lawyers representing the startup community in Silicon Beach also face unique challenges as the regional economy interacts with the tech, media and entertainment industries, according to legal recruiters.
"When you look at Silicon Valley, you have generations of lawyers that have grown up, that have been trained here—in venture capital, in tech, in life sciences, and private equity even," said San Francisco legal recruiter Avis Caravello. "Silicon Beach is relatively new. I don’t know how many people are there, how deep the talent pool is in these fields."
Larry Watanabe, a legal recruiter with Solana Beach-based Watanabe Nason & Schwartz, noted, “the No. 1 area people are looking for is corporate, and notably private equity."
He said attorneys with experience in the emerging company and venture capital-related practices are highly sought-after by startups and tech, media and entertainment companies.
“The clients are here, I don’t think the lawyers are here,” Ellis added. “They're going to have to create the talent in a way, and they’ll do it by relocating lawyers. There are some in the marketplace, it just a very different ecosystem than Silicon Valley.”
Getting Talent to the Right Place
Fenwick has already relocated about 10 lawyers and legal professionals to Santa Monica, which is the firm's first location in Southern California. The group was led by partner Michael Brown, who brought along partners Faisal Rashid and Ran Ben-Tzur, as well as five associates and some staff.
Goodwin said it expects to have 15 or more technology and private equity lawyers in Santa Monica once that office officially launches in the summer. Partner A.J. Weidhaas will lead the office, joined by partners Caine Moss and Craig Schmitz from Silicon Valley.
Orrick’s website listed that it has 18 attorneys affiliated with its Santa Monica office, including nine partners. And Cooley’s website shows the firm has about 40 lawyers, including 11 partners, in Santa Monica.
Gunderson has a slightly smaller group in West Los Angeles, consisting of five partners and five associates, according to the firm’s website.
Watanabe said Silicon Beach has been "in the works since the late '80s." However, he noted "there has been a real ... convergence of entertainment, media, and technology since then.”
That convergence has caused a number of big tech players such as Netflix, Amazon and Google, to set up shop in the area.
“These tech companies are morphing into content companies. It trickles through the economy in a big way, and then the lawyers,” Watanabe explained, “I think it is a pretty exciting time.”
Los Angeles on the whole, which has been a hotbed of law firm lateral hiring of late, has expanded its lawyer population by 11.9 percent from 2015 to 2017, according to a 2018 report by CBRE. The growth is above the national average of 3 percent, making LA the second-fastest-growing area, behind Atlanta. Demand for legal services also grew by 3.6 percent, above the national average of 1.5 percent, according to the report.
“There has been a lot of activity in West LA. The question is going to be where the talent is going to come from to facilitate the growth of these offices on a lateral level,” Watanabe added. “That is really the challenge, because everybody is looking for the same type of people.”