Submitting to FT Innovative Lawyers 2011
by Reena SenGupta

This week, a number of law firms have asked for advice on the preparation for their submissions for the 2011 FT innovative lawyers report. It has hit me that there is a misunderstanding about how the FT reports work. The submissions are used in a very different way to other awards events in the legal market. They are not read by a panel of judges, with decisions  based only on the content and look of the submission itself.

Instead they are pulled apart by a team of researchers who specialise in studying the legal profession. The most important element of the submission is the provision of appropriate, independent referees. No submitted innovation is published in the FT report without this independent corroboration. The RSG Consulting research team carries out hundreds of interviews to score individual submissions against the three criteria of originality, rationale and impact. The exercise is comparative so submissions are scored against each other as well. The bottom line about this is that there is little point in focusing too much on perfect phrasing or fancy production. If the independent referee does not see innovation, then that will be the deciding factor in the selection process.

Having said that, we are aware that sometimes clients won’t see or understand the legal innovation. This is particularly true of some of the legal expertise categories. However, we do also interview the relevant partners on the deal and then we look to see whether the client has appreciated some element of value-add. Legal innovation in these categories is the sum of the lawyers’ input (the legal widget if you like) with significant commercial outcome. That is the first hurdle to cross, next we look to see how active the lawyers have been in driving the deal or matter forward. Where is their real value-add? It is interesting to note that clients and lawyers tend to disagree about where the value-add really lies.

One of the questions we find illuminating is asking the client whether another legal team could have done the work. The answer is generally yes but in rare cases the client says “no it had to be this one team, this one lawyer.” This response will invariably drive the submission to the top of the pile.

In terms of the operational categories, we benchmark the submissions against our market intelligence of what constitutes cutting edge practice, and interviews with expert commentators and independent observers of the market. Here it is important to show evidence of the value which the operational innovations have created either for clients or for the firm.

I have observed over the years that the hardest part of putting together a successful submission is choosing what to submit. Even now, when the FT report is in its sixth year in Europe, lawyers still have a wariness over the word innovation. I would even go as far as calling it fear in some cases. It conjures up for them the idea that they somehow have to be the Steve Jobs of the legal world, that innovation is about Eureka moments and new inventions. Any gallop through the business press on innovation shows that it is always about incremental improvements. A new twist on an old idea, a step-up, a move into the next possibility. The legal sector is no different to the rest of the world in this respect. If you compare the 2006 FT report to the 2010 one, there is a huge change. But if you compare the 2010 one to the 2009, the change is less evident.

The 2011 European FT report is looking at bold thinking. What that means exactly even we do not know at this stage as the deadline for sending us submissions is still some weeks away. But what we will be looking for, particularly from the UK firms, is some anticipation of the Legal Services Act. From the continental European firms, we will be looking for imaginative responses to the recession, particularly around client service. The emphasis is on ideas more than impact this year. Pure originality is always difficult so we are looking for imaginative lawyers, who have overcome the personality profile and taken a few risks, either for themselves or in terms of sharing risk with clients.

My last tip on selecting which case studies to put forward – and remember we are looking for specific examples of innovation, stories in effect – is to simply ask your lawyers or your professional managers what piece of work they have most enjoyed over the past couple of years. Which piece of work has thrilled them, reminded them of why they became lawyers or professionals and made them feel at the top of their game? Invariably that will throw up innovation.