The other night I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the FT’s Innovative Lawyers 2013 (US) awards ceremony at the New York Public Library’s main Fifth Avenue and 42nd branch. (The report was published here the next day in the paper, and you can download a PDF here.)

Since this is now an annual event—this year marks the fourth time they’ve done it in the US—it’s an occasion to step back and see how the conversation has evolved. Here’s the quite telling final paragraph of last year’s introductory piece, following a lengthy series of vignettes/anecdotes from managing partners about “buggy whips,” “new market dynamics,” “requiring behavior to change,” “opportunities to innovate,” “the wow factor,” and “adapting to the moving cheese”:

All the chairmen of the top firms talk about change and the need to “not fight the last war”. And yet at the same time they cannot, they say, see their firms being all that different in five years’ time.

How much innovation were firms really prepared to engage in last year? I rest my case.

Continuing into the articles about the meat of innovation last year, one apiece is devoted to:

  • identifying ways to make sure corporate deals get regulatory approval;
  • working offensively and defensively with patents;
  • helping clients themselves “become more innovative;”
  • extending techniques of debt restructuring from the corporate arena to entire countries (Exhibit A: Greece);
  • enhancing associate training and experimenting with secondments;
  • getting serious about alternative fees;
  • fighting class actions; and
  • advising on partnership and corporate structures for exploiting shale gas.

Maybe I’m jaded, but I find this all a bit underwhelming; aren’t these things law firms should always be doing? Granted, they may—we can stipulate they are—going about these particular tasks in innovative legal ways, but that’s not what I have top of mind when I’m on a quest to uncover innovation in “the business of law” (as the FT puts it).

Let me hasten to add that this is not the FT’s fault in the least; each year they receive an ever-increasing number of submissions (now well into the hundreds), and I’m sure they diligently select the standouts from the pack. It’s just that this is the type of raw material law firms give them to work with.

So has the needle moved in the past year?

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