Build It, and They Will Come: Ten Years On, Three Venable Partners Reminisce About Opening the San Francisco Office

8 min

In 2013, Venable opened an office in San Francisco, its second on the West Coast. In this recent conversation, Jim Nelson, Art Cirulnick, and Tom Wallerstein—three of the original partners—discuss the impetus behind the move, the risks that were involved, and how the office is doing a decade later.

Q: Venable already had a significant West Coast presence with its Los Angeles office. What was the catalyst for opening a second California location?

Art: With the LA office up and running, firm leadership started looking at what the next appropriate geography might be. And all the activity in the Bay Area, particularly in the privacy, advertising, and IP sectors—where several of our partners have very large practices—suggested that should be the logical choice. So, we established the Silicon Valley Task Force, of which I was a member, to analyze market needs and figure out the best approach to launching an office in Northern California. Initially, we weren’t sure if we should be in San Francisco, or Silicon Valley, but we ultimately settled on San Francisco. Historically, Venable is not a firm that transplants a bunch of existing attorneys to a place, but rather tries to hire local people who we can integrate with. That required many trips out west to meet people who might want to work with us, some of whom, like Tom, were internal referrals. 

Q: Tom, you had your own law firm in the Bay Area at that time. How did Venable get on your radar? 

Tom: It was through my law school friend, Kostas Katsiris, who's a Venable partner in New York. He called me out of the blue one day and told me that Venable is thinking of opening an office in the Bay Area and asked if I might want to be involved. That was the beginning of a conversation that went on for a couple of years!

Q: Art, you were in DC at that time, and Jim, you were in New York. What led both of you to uproot yourselves and make the move out west?

Jim: Early on in the process, I was approached by Jim Shea—our chairman at the time—who asked me if I would consider being part of the efforts in San Francisco. Since the Bay Area was a key center of IP innovation and IP-driven companies, it was an unexpected opportunity for me to expand the work I was doing with those companies with a particular focus on tech, life sciences, and media and entertainment. On a personal level, I had no agenda to make such a move. But then Hurricane Sandy hit, and a property I was in the process of buying in Lower Manhattan was destroyed. So, I took that as a sign, considered the possibility of helping to build a great office for a great firm, and seized the opportunity. 

Art: When I was told that the firm was planning on opening an office in the Bay Area, that was the beginning of the adventure for me. We thought it important to instill Venable culture into a new office, so that's why Jim and I were there in part. It also helped that we both had existing practices. But we also wanted to be local, and Tom and his team became our local crew.

Q: Was it a leap of faith for all of you?

Art: After two years of trying to figure it all out and working to find the right people to join us, Jim Shea just declared in one of our meetings, “We’re going to build it, and they will come.” That decision was made in June of 2013, and I was told I’d be moving to San Francisco in September of that year. 

Jim: It was very much a risk. But when I moved, I had to have a “burn the boats” attitude that there was no going back. There couldn’t be an out clause where if it doesn’t work out, I could jump ship. We couldn’t expect people to join us if we didn’t make a full commitment to success. 

Tom: A lot of East Coast firms that had opened out west had failed, so it was not a foregone conclusion to me that it would be a success. But I came on board with a senior associate, a junior associate, and a paralegal / office manager, and we hit the ground running.   

Q: Sounds like there was a bit of a start-up vibe. 

Tom: It was exactly that. We moved into a temporary space South of Market, and there was just a handful of us, surrounded by boxes and so on. It didn’t look like a traditional law firm, and that was fine, because we set out with a very entrepreneurial mindset. It was exciting to be part of something new, as opposed to plugging into something that is already up and running. And weirdly, I think we still have that start-up mentality. 

Jim: Success was not assured—both Art and I had to take the bar and hope for the best. But we did have support from the wider firm. Stu Ingis, our current chairman, and others had very broad networks out here, which became a terrific source of referrals for business opportunities. Other attorneys around the firm were from San Francisco or Bay Area schools and brought their energy to the efforts as well. And we got a lot of support from the LA office out of the gate, both with getting things set up and with further establishing Venable in California. 

Q: Once the office was open, how did you all go about building your businesses?   

Tom: The critical change to my practice was that it shifted from relying on outside referrals to internal referrals. I was a general commercial litigator then, and still am today, but once I joined Venable and had access to a full-service firm, I immediately had the bandwidth and the people to take on much bigger cases. If a client needed tax help or was looking to do an M&A deal, I could refer them to other Venable attorneys, and, similarly, if Venable partners needed help with litigation, that work would come to me. So, it was just a matter of bigger, better, more.  

Art: Exactly. Our metrics were fantastic out of the box because each of us had thriving individual practices, with Tom doing mostly litigation, Jim doing transactional IP work, and my focus being corporate and M&A. Then we were able to grow our businesses exponentially by cross-selling and helping each other. At the beginning I was the only corporate guy in San Francisco, so Tom was stuck with me, and most of my San Francisco–based clients are referrals from him. Early on, we would have regular meetings with Jim Shea. One day he scribbled something on the back of an envelope, which was the metrics of our office versus the rest of the firm. It turned out that this upstart group in San Francisco was outperforming expectations. At this stage, I’ve done a huge amount of work for Tom’s clients and Tom’s done huge amounts of work for mine. 

Jim: The creative engine that exists in California is often wrapped around intellectual property, so that allowed me to really expand the work I had been doing in that area. I knew when I came out here that media and entertainment, tech, and life sciences could be growth areas for me, and that’s proved to be true. The IP-centered ecosystems are huge here, and being able to plug into it led to all sorts of opportunities across the board. 

Q: The office now has more than 30 attorneys. Which practice areas are most active, and where do you see opportunities for growth?  

Jim: Our litigation group is better than it's ever been, in terms of both the quality of clients and the scale of the matters. We’ve also built a very successful environmental practice and an excellent tax and wealth planning practice, and have significantly grown our corporate and IP practices. But in classic Venable form, we don’t open offices to have an outpost somewhere. We want a full-service office, so we are actively looking to expand our capabilities and ranks in various areas, such as patent litigation, tech, and life sciences, and, of course, real estate is a major area of opportunity, as it is a major strength of the firm. So, while we’re very pleased with what we’ve collectively built so far, we’re still a work in progress. 

Q: With all that growth, the office space had to expand too. Has Venable San Francisco found its forever home? 

Tom: We outgrew our first premises in South of Market pretty quickly and have moved a couple of times since. But it wasn’t until 2018 that we found our permanent residence at 101 California Street. It was entirely gutted, so we were able to have it custom-built just how we wanted. I played no role in that, but I really love how it turned out. 

Art: I was on the space search committee and the space design committee. And when we first saw the location, it was, as Tom said, entirely gutted, so you could stand in the middle of the floor and see stunning 360-degree views of San Francisco from every angle. I remember very clearly taking Stu Ingis to see the space while it was still under construction. We were looking out at the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and we felt like proud parents. After all the years of flying back and forth, and then finally taking that leap with no guarantee that it would work out, it was incredibly satisfying to feel that we had arrived.  

To learn more about Venable San Francisco, please check out our website or reach out to Jim Nelson, Art Cirulnick, or Tom Wallerstein.