Lawyers nix champagne amid popped bubble

It may be time to put a cork in Silicon Valley's most famous law firm. Wilson Sonsini is no longer celebrating its new attorneys with champagne. That trimmed perk is just the beginning of its woes.

Above the Law notes that Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati has skipped the annual tradition of awarding associates who passed the bar exam a bottle of champagne. At $40 a bottle for 53 associates, $2,120 is hardly a big expense. But it is a powerful symbolic move: The bubbly times are gone for good.

Wilson Sonsini is no mere bill-by-the-hour outfit; the firm and its founders have been key players in establishing Silicon Valley's equity culture, where employees are motivated by stock options that pay off when a company goes public or gets sold. And who handled many of those IPOs and M&A deals? Wilson Sonsini, of course. Larry Sonsini, the firm's best-known founder, has been a consigliere to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, among others.

This decade has not been good for Wilson Sonsini. The firm has found itself dragged into every major scandal that drew national attention to the clubby world of the Valley, from HP's illegal pretexting of reporters' phone records to the backdating of stock options in many tech firms. Wilson Sonsini paid $9.5 million to one tech company to avoid involvement in litigation — but there are other backdating lawsuits out there. Observers of the legal profession are waiting to see if one ends up dragging the Valley's most arrogant lawyers into court.

Even if Wilson Sonsini escapes legal trouble, it can't dodge the recession. A cold IPO market has already hobbled its business; with public offerings completely frozen, and acquisitions happening for a fraction of the price they commanded even a few years ago, it's hard to see how the firm will make the kind of money it did in the '90s.

Wilson Sonsini helped build the Valley's sense of itself as a world apart — and its own firm as an even more rarefied sphere within that bubble. No wonder they and their clients ended up testing the law's gray areas in the pursuit of . That's why trimming this year's champagne budget isn't a mere cutting of perks: It's a sign that a gang of lawyers who saw themselves as above the rest have floated down to earth. The descent is only beginning.