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Law firms may be seen as citadels of commercial conservatism, but within them lurk a small number of “wildly creative” people who are showing their impatience with the historically slow pace of change.
That is the message taken by the US blogger Ernie the Attorney from a December American Bar Association magazine article bullishly entitled “Law Firm Mavericks Go For Broke: Traditional Thinkers Need Not Apply”.
“What’s the likelihood that the practice of law will radically change in the near future?” Ernie asks. “Not much, but there is a growing crop of lawyers who want to innovate. And, not surprisingly, they’re finding clients receptive to their novel approach.”
That message from the legal industry has prompted the Financial Times to repeat and expand the Innovative Lawyers report and rankings it published for the first time last year.
In a booming but competitive world legal market, law firms want increasingly to find new ways of doing things that will help distinguish them from their rivals. The first FT report attracted more than 300 submissions from 70 law firms.
This year the report will use research carried out by RSG Consulting, a specialist legal consultancy, and is sponsored by BDO Stoy Hayward. It will include new sections on continental Europe, the UK Bar and public sector legal teams, and in-house lawyers at Europe’s top companies (sponsored by Allen & Overy).
Last year’s report showed a profession that had begun to take innovation more seriously but was still significantly behind the rest of the business world. For example, the report received a submission from a firm that claimed to be innovative in the “Use of Technology” category because it gave BlackBerries to all its partners.
Laura Empson, editor of a recent book called Managing the Modern Law Firm, says law firms are “still at the very beginning of being innovative”. “Innovation in most industry sectors is normally seen as a good word,” she says. “But in law firms it’s a threatening one.”
There are still plenty of structural reasons why the industry has been slow off the mark. Law firm partnerships can be ripe with resentful but technically equal colleagues who have the power to veto initiatives they disagree with.
Another factor, says James Bagge, head of global dispute resolution at City law firm Norton Rose, is that law firm partners are so busy pitching for and carrying out work that they never have time to follow up their ideas for developing the way their practices operate.
In spite of this, last year’s FT report showed genuine – if piecemeal – examples of imaginative thinking.
Some firms have invested in rather more sophisticated technology than Black-Berries in an effort to win clients. The top-ranked submission last year was Addleshaw Goddard’s employment channel – a 24-hour-a-day online television feed that allows clients to train and educate their staff on important aspects of personnel and employment law.
Lawyers within companies are thinking hard about how best to manage their dual roles as internal legal advisers and buyers of external legal services. Trevor Faure, general counsel at Tyco, is working with the law firm Eversheds to try to make the company’s legal advice more uniform and easily available. Tyco has cut its galaxy of 250 legal advisers and made Eversheds sole provider: a consolidation that, Mr Faure says, will give the company better control over governance, regulation and compliance.
Perhaps the most striking sign of the development of the profession is the inclusion in this year’s report of the UK Bar. It is a chance for the Bar to challenge the perception that the preservation of tradition and resistance to change are axiomatic in its work.
This sense was summed up by Sir David Clementi’s landmark 2004 UK government-commissioned report on legal services, which found “little evidence that the Bar has been a force for innovation in customs and practice”.
These days St Philip’s Chambers in Birmingham – the largest in the country – has a whole page devoted to innovation on its website. The FT report is aimed at testing whether this commitment and others like it amount to management jargon or genuine progress.