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Silicon Valley law firm pioneer Bill Fenwick dies at 83

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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  • William "Bill" Fenwick helped launch Fenwick & West in 1972
  • It has grown into a major player in the technology and life sciences space

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(Reuters) - William “Bill” Fenwick, co-founder of Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West, died on Oct. 4 in Palo Alto at age 83, his firm said.

The firm announced his death Thursday, praising his prescience to create a law firm catering to tech entrepreneurs and the "egalitarian and respectful" firm culture he created.

Firmwide chair Richard Dickson declined to specify the cause of death. Fenwick held the title of partner emeritus and had stepped away from his active practice, Dickson said.

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“I think of Bill as not just an entrepreneur, but a visionary,” said Dickson, who had known Fenwick for 28 years. “He’s someone who really embraced technology and change. He provided all of us with a strong early example of taking the time to develop a deep understanding of technology and where innovation is headed.”

Fenwick was a fifth-year associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in 1972 when he and three others from the New York firm founded their own shop in Palo Alto to serve the technology industry, which was still in its infancy. Computers were not foreign to Fenwick, however. He had worked nights in the computer operations center of a shoe manufacturer to support his family while earning his 1967 degree from Vanderbilt Law School.

In an interview with Vanderbilt Law’s alumni magazine, Fenwick recalled pushing Cleary’s partners to modernize, convincing them to buy the firm’s first IBM word processor.

Fenwick & West’s first big client was Pioneer Electronics—a manufacturer Fenwick had forged a relationship with at Cleary. In 1976, Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak approached the firm about helping their budding computer business incorporate - the start of a long relationship.

Since then, Fenwick has represented many of the biggest tech and life sciences players in matters ranging from litigation and intellectual property to mergers and acquisitions and venture capital. Its client roster also includes Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Today, Fenwick says it has more than 500 attorneys, with offices in Mountain View, Calif., San Francisco, Santa Monica, Seattle, New York, and Shanghai. In August, it launched a Washington, D.C., office with three partner hires.

In addition to managing the firm's early growth, Fenwick helped establish its egalitarian and entrepreneurial spirit, Dickson said, adding that attorneys and others enjoy an unusual level of autonomy for a firm of its size.

“We all take a great deal of pride in our firm culture, and Bill is the one who really laid the foundation for that,” he said.

Read more:

Fenwick launches D.C. office with Freshfields, Dechert partners

Q&A: Fenwick N.Y. partner discusses the outpost's growth and reopening plans

(This article was updated to include current attorney headcount figures for Fenwick & West.)

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com

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