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Despite the legal industry’s bearish outlook, we think that Geoff Wild speaking at the Reinvent Law Conference in Dubai has got things right. He said: “there’s never been a better time to be a lawyer… just not a traditional lawyer.”

Looking into 2013 the legal market remains saturated and the client-attorney rules of engagement are continuing to change. To take market share and grow, law firms need to win business from competitors and to create new markets by setting themselves apart. That’s the consensus heard from the law trade’s leading lights named in the FT’s 2012 list of most innovative lawyers.

Now into its third year the FT’s US Innovative Lawyers 2012 special report has provided an in-depth break down of some of law’s leading trends. It also provides an index that lists the 25 most innovative law firms. These are firms that have brought a mix of fresh thinking and practices that have helped struggling corporate America.

Interestingly the special report noted that UK firms lead the US in terms of process innovation. Sounds like more management speak but don’t run off just yet! By process and processes we mean the day-to-day tools that help firms to get things done. Process innovation is the creation and implementation of new tools that streamline the internal running of a law firm.

Using a rigorous screening methodology the FT and its research partner RSG Consulting scored entries from 0 to 10 on the criteria of originality, rationale and impact.

  1. Latham and Watkins
  2. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
  3. Paul Hastings
  4. Davis Polk & Wardwell
  5. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
  6. Weil, Gotshal & Manges
  7. Seyfarth Shaw
  8. White and Case
  9. Kirkland and Ellis
  10. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
  11. Jones Day
  12. Mayer Brown
  13. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
  14. Cooley
  15. Sullivan & Cromwell
  16. Crowell & Moring
  17. Ropes & Gray
  18. DLA Piper
  19. Cravath, Swaine & Moore
  20. Debevoise & Plimpton
  21. Dechert
  22. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
  23. Holland & Knight
  24. Morrison & Foerster
  25. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft

The FT paid particular tribute to Holland & Knight who are leading in a vanguard of law firms shaking up the old billable hour model – a growing trend which we recently looked at here.

It also heaped praise on Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who are now running an in-house “mini MBA”, mandatory for first year associates, which aims to bring real depth of commercial acumen. With the FT Client Advisory 2012 paper in mind the drive for commercial awareness shows great responsiveness on the part of Cleary Gottlieb.

Davis Polk have taken a similar line by encouraging new entrants to specialise early which brings the specialism to market that clients demand, want and need.

Wilmerhale was lauded by the FT for taking steps to restructure its internal processes which has brought huge cost-saving benefits to clients.

Morrison & Foerster were also noted for creating their bespoke guide to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act which showered banks and businesses with ream upon ream of compliance regulation.

Crowell & Moring were applauded for training over 400 of their lawyers in professional project management which since helped the firm to land new clients.

The FT’s special report, heralded as a landmark in the law industry’s calendar, is undoubtedly a priceless resource that profiles and champions the firms who are pushing the envelope of practice. These are the firms who are carving out the new normal of legal practice which, in years to come, will simply become ubiquitous.

The challenge for other law firms is to take note and replicate in an effective manner the same innovative and creating process improvements which have landed the firms named above onto the table of top 25 US law firms. By doing so they can hope to take market share and successfully grow into the years to come.