Liquid Shard, Pershing Square, Los Angeles, designed by Patrick Shearn in collaboration with Now Art LA, AAV School, and Pershing Square.
Liquid Shard, Pershing Square, Los Angeles, designed by Patrick Shearn in collaboration with Now Art LA, AAV School, and Pershing Square. © Scott Turner

The legal profession faces many challenges, for the clients it serves, and for itself.

With upsets under way on several fronts, clients in business, government and society generally will need the calm objectivity of their lawyers. And as new technologies reshape the way business is conducted, the need for lawyers to be innovative, forward-thinking partners is becoming acute.

At the same time, the profession faces its own internal difficulties. Young lawyers emerging from law schools are increasingly burdened with debt, while the chances of making partner are slim. In North America, bright graduates increasingly opt for careers outside the law, depriving the profession of their talent. Legal education has not kept pace with how commercial law is practised and law degrees do not include the business, finance or soft skills needed in a modern law firm or corporate legal department.

Deep change is also under way among clients, who continue to expand into more jurisdictions, and are increasingly cost-conscious and technology-enabled. Many of the big legal purchasers are from new industry sectors which employ in-house legal teams that have the desire and capacity to change the way in which they and external lawyers work.

This year’s FT report shows how the North American profession is responding to such challenges. The 2016 rankings detail initiatives that are a step change on previous years, particularly in how lawyers use data analytics and technology. For example, Littler Mendelson has hired expert data science law professor Zev Eigen and nine other data scientists to help it offer legal services that include predictive modelling to help companies manage their workplace risks.

Many law firms have recognised the need to deliver solutions to clients’ problems that require disciplines other than the law.

Harriet Pearson, a partner at Hogan Lovells and this year’s winner of the most innovative individual lawyer award, has set up a cyber risk services business at the firm. Companies experiencing cyber-related problems often require broader answers than just legal advice.

Ms Pearson could be considered the epitome — and forerunner — of a new breed of lawyer now emerging to respond to 21st century business problems. An ex-engineer, her career includes 20 years at IBM, incorporating a non-legal role as its first chief privacy officer.

The leading innovations and individual innovators in the report show how lawyers with diverse experience can explore the boundaries of law and regulation to assist their clients. Andrea Reid, partner at Dechert, is a scientist-turned-lawyer who helps generate billions of dollars for her pharmaceutical clients by seeking out the value in inventions they may have underestimated.

For the first time in the FT’s special reports on innovative lawyers, the top 10 list of individuals is dominated by women. What do they have in common? Nearly all practise in the vanguard of new businesses and technologies, from the industrial internet of things to the challenges of working for clients in the emerging fintech sector. All are pushing against strict definitions of lawyers. They are much more than technical specialists and bring the ability to imagine future scenarios into their advisory work.

This is not to say that legal innovation is found only at points where new practices and industries emerge. This report features plenty of lawyers that are changing the way they work in more familiar situations. Work by Weil, Gotshal & Manges on the corporate split of General Electric required innovation in the way the lawyers managed the scale and complexity of the task.

Similarly, White & Case lawyers adapted contractual finance techniques used in the aviation and automobile industries to create a new debt-financing product for the maritime industry, giving many companies access to finance that had been denied to them since the 2008 financial crisis.

One of the more radical examples of how traditional boundaries are breaking down in all areas of legal practice came in litigation between the former Hewlett-Packard and Oracle. HP general counsel John Schultz assembled a trial team from four different law firms to win the $3bn case. It is a telling example of how collaboration is becoming essential in a profession better known for silos.

The FT 25 reveals firms who are rethinking their businesses and service offerings. They are not necessarily the most profitable firms or the largest by revenue. But they score highly for their relevance to clients and for answering their otherwise unmet needs.

The top ranked firm this year is Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which originated on the West Coast. A key plank of its strategy is to focus on industries in which it can excel — technology, finance and energy — while also making the firm a better place to work.

One of the first law firms to experiment with design thinking, it has tried to encourage its lawyers to come up with new ideas. Its “2% Time” programme set up three years ago enables partners to spend 2 per cent of their time on initiatives that will improve the firm and profession. Chairman Mitchell Zuklie says: “Our single biggest innovation is to allow this renaissance of individual creativity in the firm.”

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