goodwinprocter.jpgGoodwin Procter, a Boston-based law firm, has just struck a blow to Silicon Valley’s leading law firm Wilson Sonsini, poaching a group of top venture capital partners.

axelrad2.jpgJonathan Axelrad (pictured left), Robert Fore, and Gerald Chacon were the most senior lawyers at Wilson responsible for the firm’s venture practice. They’ve put together some of the area’s best venture capital firms, and manage their affairs with investors and start-ups. Top firms Sequoia Capital and Mayfield, for example, number among their clients. The move was announced a couple of hours ago internally at Wilson Sonsini. We’re hearing Wilson Sonsini, one of Silicon Valley’s most aggressive law firms, wasn’t happy. We’re told Axelrad & Co. are trying to take with them five other lawyers in their group, as well as seven other professionals. Several have agreed to go, others are still deciding.

The move is surprising because Axelrad has been at Wilson for 17 years, and Wilson Sonsini is one of the most respected firms. Axelrad said in an interview that it took an “extraordinary” offer for him to decide to join Goodwin. Goodwin’s depth was also a draw. Goodwin has a far larger group of fund lawyers, with more than 15 partners devoted solely to serving funds, from mutual funds to private equity and real estate. No longer can a small group of attorneys sufficiently manage a venture capital firm’s needs, said Axelrad. Venture firms are increasingly active in other areas, including in hedge-fund, debt and buyout activities. As deals get more complex, Axelrad said, he found himself reaching out to other firms for advice. Wilson is still a relatively small firm by national standards, even if it is a heavy weight among start-ups here in Silicon Valley.

Axelrad said leaving Wilson was the “hardest decision of my life,” citing his respect for the firm and his friendships there.

Goodwin started last year with zero lawyers in California, but now has more than 60 lawyers in Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Diego. “It has set California in its crosshairs,” said Axelrad in an interview.

The move guts Wilson of its senior partners serving venture, however Wilson itself has grown by poaching partners, and its likely to strike quickly to restore its VC practice.

The Goodwin move continues a trend of expansion by the nation’s top law firms into California. “The top law firms have concluded that in a global, sophisticated legal market, it’s either expand or fall behind,” Axelrad said. Goodwin has 850 attorneys, with its main strength in Boston, New York and Washington, DC.

VentureBeat covered Axelrad’s activities last year, when he reported increased deals in China and India.

Axelrad’s team, when combined with Goodwin Procter’s, accounted for almost 20 percent of all the new capital commitments made to venture capital funds in 2006, according to the two parties.