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Choosing a Northern California Law Firm

Published: Nov 28, 2023

 Education       Grad School       Job Search       Law       
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You’ve decided that you want to practice law in Northern California—most likely in the Bay Area, adjacent to the tech industry. Given the hotbed of IP litigation the Northern District of California is, you might want to first consult our practice area rankings for IP. Then, consider whether you want to work in the Northern California office of a firm based elsewhere, or for a firm that is headquartered in Northern California. In this article, we compare five firms that ranked in our Northern California rankings that are also headquartered in Northern California. For more Northern California-based options, you can review Vault’s Northern California prestige rankings and the Vault profiles of any firms you’re interested in.

The five top-ranked Northern California-based firms based on Vault’s 2024 regional prestige rankings are Morrison & Foerster, Cooley, Wilson Sonsini, Fenwick, and Orrick. Below are a few relevant highlights about each of these firms.

Morrison & Foerster

Top-ranked for Northern California prestige, Morrison & Foerster (colloquially known as MoFo) is headquartered in San Francisco with an additional office in Palo Alto—as well as additional offices in eight U.S. and eight international locations.  MoFo is also ranked in eleven of our practice area prestige rankings, with the highest being #2 in Privacy & Data Security and spots in the top 10 in Emerging Companies & Venture Capital and Intellectual Property. Notably, the firm also ranks in all five of our diversity rankings categories. The firm is a large one, and associates here describe the culture as respectful and collegial, with a low-to-average (for BigLaw) billable hour requirement of 1,950 hours. Career prospects are strong, with counsel options and exit opportunities available, and partnership described as “viable for anyone who wants it.”

Cooley

Cooley sits at #2 in Vault’s Northern California prestige rankings this year and has a reputation of being near-synonymous with tech and venture capital work. Cooley is headquartered in Palo Alto, with an additional office in San Francisco as well as ten others in the U.S. and six international offices. The firm ranks in ten practice areas in Vault’s 2024 Practice Area prestige rankings, including the #1 spot in both Emerging Companies & Venture Capital and Privacy & Data Security and #5 in Intellectual Property. Cooley attorneys have a billable hour requirement, but it’s more of a formality, as most consistently work well above the target threshold. Although it is difficult to achieve, the path to partnership is clear and viable for those willing to do the work.

Wilson Sonsini

Coming in at #3 in Vault’s 2024 Northern California prestige rankings, Wilson Sonsini is additionally distinguished by ranking in six categories in Vault’s 2024 practice area rankings, including the #2 spot in Emerging Companies & Venture Capital. Headquartered in Palo Alto, Wilson Sonsini, like many other Northern California firms, has very deep tech industry roots even as it has built a fully global presence. The firm rounds out its Northern California presence with two San Francisco offices, complemented by eleven other U.S. and five international offices. Associates report that, alongside a reasonable billable hour requirement of 1,950, the firm offers flexibility and a laid-back culture (by BigLaw standards, anyway). The firm has a long but realistic partner track, and exit options are strong.

Fenwick

Fenwick is headquartered in Mountain View with an office in San Francisco, as well as four other U.S. and one international office. Ranked #5 in Vault’s 2024 Northern California prestige rankings, Fenwick has a reputation as the “OG” Silicon Valley tech firm, no doubt cemented by its incorporation of Apple in 1977. The firm’s strengths are similar to other firms highlighted in this post—it’s #4 in Emerging Companies & Venture Capital—but it may be a nicer place to work than others, considering it ranks in a whopping thirteen of Vault’s 2024 Best Law Firms to Work For categories, including #15 overall. Making partner here is realistic, and the exit opportunities have been described as “unparalleled, given Fenwick’s client base.”

Orrick

Orrick has the distinction of being our top-ranked firm in Clean Tech/Renewable Energy for 2024, with headquarters in San Francisco and additional offices in Sacramento and Menlo Park, as well as an additional 12 U.S. and 13 international offices. Coming in at #9 in Vault’s Northern California prestige rankings, Orrick has the additional distinction of ranking in the top five in all five of Vault’s diversity ranking categories, including #5 Best Overall for Diversity. Impressively, the firm also ranks in a whopping sixteen of our Best Law Firms to Work For categories, including #6 Overall. Simply put, this firm is an excellent place to work.

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Each of the top-ranked Northern California firms brings different advantages to the table. If you want to do startup or privacy work, it doesn’t get more prestigious than Cooley. If quality of life is more important to you, check out Fenwick, Orrick, and other firms that also rank highly in Vault’s Best Law Firms to Work For categories. You can research all of these firms through Vault’slaw firm profiles and the firms’ websites, to learn more about each firm. And as a general piece of advice: Think hard about which aspects of law firm life are genuinely important, and which are luxuries. No one firm is best at everything.

Best of luck from all of us at Vault Law on your legal job search!

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