The FT Innovative Lawyers honors for 2014 have been released, so it’s time to peer across the pond and see what our friends in the UK have been doing. This look becomes more interesting each year as competition heats up with the UK’s adoption through the Legal Services Act of 2007 of the Alternative Business Structures (ABS) model.

As I flipped through the honorees in different categories, and looked at the contenders for and ultimate winner of the Legal Innovator of the Year award, several things stood out. I should note that the award goes to an individual, not a firm. But, I talk about the firms below and not the individuals, in part because I believe the environment must be somewhat open to innovation for the individual to succeed.

I’ve listed below the things that stood out to me with my comments. The list is not ordered, which partly reflects my drafting and partly reflects the eclectic nature of what is happening in the legal industry.

  • Of the ten firms with contenders for Legal Innovator of the Year, four (Jones Day, Latham & Watkins, Orrick, Sidley & Austin) were US-based law firms. FT’s recognition of US legal innovation will come out in December. It will be interesting to see how many, if any, of the same US firms appear on that list. It is too soon to tell whether any of these firms are becoming global innovators, or if innovation is still the domain of isolated partners.
  • One firm with a contender (Mishcon de Reya) has applied to be an ABS. Mishcon is one of the first if not the first major law firm to apply for ABS status.
  • None of the firms with contenders are in the Magic Circle group of firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, Slaughter and May). There are many other awards more specific to practice areas and some Magic Circle firms do appear on those lists.
  • Two of the ten individuals contending were women (Joanne Wheeler, Susana Almeida Lopes), and one of these women (Joanne Wheeler) won the Legal Innovator of the Year Award.
  • One of the ten firms with contenders (Eversheds) had a service delivery model that brought it to the judges’ attention. Eversheds has been known for its single-supplier deal with Tyco. That deal, which includes metrics and project management, has expanded and Eversheds has struck more such deals. This structure goes well beyond convergence. We now see a model under which one firm handles or manages the legal services for a company, just as IBM might manage the IT services for a company.
  • The innovations that put the individuals in contention were diverse. The winner (from Bird & Bird) has built a space law practice. Several others were in contention for law firm or talent management initiatives.
  • Practicing law and being a good place to work can work together. One firm (Mishcon) was listed in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For – for the past five years.

I believe competition is having an impact on the UK legal market, and is, at least in part, driving some of the innovative activity now appearing in descriptions of the contenders.

Lawyers are professional skeptics, so I’m sure many reading this post and the FT Innovators list will say there is nothing new here. I respectfully disagree. Although the list may represent the tip of the spear, change is moving lawyers and law firms forward to do things different and in some cases ahead of the market. When the December awards for US firms come out, we can compare how far and fast things are moving in the two markets. Anyone want to make bets about which country will be in the lead?

UK Innovative Lawyers Show US the Ways Big Law Fights Back