North American law firms have had an extraordinary pandemic. Most of the top commercial firms have experienced rocketing client demand, higher productivity, and record revenues and profitability.

But it has not all been rosy. Competition for talented lawyers has, according to many firms, become a war.

Talent strategies are at the forefront of most managing partners’ minds. While the campaign to attract and retain talent is being fought on the battlefields of associate remuneration, there is an increasing realisation that the war will be won elsewhere.

“We don’t say the ‘war for talent’, we say the ‘love for talent’,” says Ira Coleman, chair of McDermott Will & Emery. “And the most talented gravitate to this model.”

Top 20: most innovative law firms in North America — Practice of law
RankLaw firmTotal score
1Winner:* Sullivan & Cromwell96
2Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison88
3Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft75
4Cravath, Swaine & Moore74
6DLA Piper71
7Hogan Lovells68
8Morrison & Foerster66
10Kirkland & Ellis61
11Sidley Austin50
12Latham & Watkins45
13=White & Case44
17=Arnold & Porter42
17=Weil, Gotshal & Manges42
19Ropes & Gray41
20Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati25
Total score based on RSGI scores for all practice of law submissions ranked in the report
*Winner of the FT Innovative Lawyers award for ‘Most innovative law firm in North America: Practice of law’
Source: RSGI

The firm ranked top in recent independent industry surveys of associate satisfaction by legal publications Vault, Chambers and The American Lawyer. Its strategy is to be as transparent as possible, to focus on better feedback systems, and constantly to assess the happiness — or otherwise — of associates, by means of monthly surveys.

“We are seeking . . . to really care about what [our people] want to do next in their lives,” says Coleman. “That’s something different to what other law firms are doing. We’re asking our partners to leave the place better than they found it.”

This approach is paying off in financial terms. The firm, which ranks 24th in The American Lawyer’s Am Law 200 list by revenues, has posted double-digit growth in revenues and profitability for the past three years.

Innovation is linked to mindset, says Coleman. Unlike McDermott Will & Emery’s peers, he says, “we use the words ‘fun’ and ‘happiness’. We want it to be that, if you pulled an all-nighter, you had as much fun as you could, because you have autonomy.” His view is that everyday work is enjoyable because of the collegial ties, autonomy and independence.

Top 20: most innovative law firms in North America — Business of law
RankLaw firmSubmissions scoreUse of data & tech scoreTotal score
1Winner: Hogan Lovells*6350113
2White & Case6543108
4McDermott Will & Emery6439106
5Goodwin Procter6243105
6Morgan, Lewis & Bockius6439103
7=Baker McKenzie5745102
7=Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders5646102
11Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer US514495
12Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati464894
13Ballard Spahr424688
14Morrison & Foerster424587
15Ropes & Gray414283
16King & Spalding393877
17Borden Ladner Gervais413475
18Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman333770
19DLA Piper194665
20Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld184462
*Winner of the FT Innovative Lawyers award for ‘Most innovative law firm in North America: Business of law’
Total score based on RSGI scores for the top three highest scoring business of law submissions, plus the data and tech score.
Submissions score comprises points awarded to submissions, with a maximum possible total of 90. Data and tech score is based on answers to a questionnaire, with a maximum possible total of 60 points.
Source: RSGI

Other law firm leaders also stress the importance of an organisation’s traits.

“The past two years have been a wake-up call on culture,” says Kim Koopersmith, chair of Akin Gump. She is proud that her firm had already prioritised talent and culture in its business strategy before the pandemic struck. But she regards it as an opportunity to take stock of what to do differently, and what to retain.

Akin Gump had already instituted a work-from-home policy but, now, there is even more emphasis on making sure that associates are interested and fulfilled. “For me, part of the war for talent will be fought on money and making sure people aren’t burnt out,” Koopersmith says. “But at its core, it is how you treat people and whether they feel good about how they’re developing.”

Miguel Zaldivar, global chief executive of Hogan Lovells, echoes this. “We try to pay our people at levels [that] will keep them respected and appreciated, but they stay because of the culture,” he says. “We put a lot of time into keeping our culture.” A relative newcomer to the leadership role — he started in the job 18 months ago — Zaldivar says the new management team placed culture and purpose at the same level as profitability.

$115,000 Top amount of year-end bonus at trend-setter Cravath

However, with Cravath, Swaine & Moore announcing increased bonuses in November across every level of associate — up to $115,000 for those with seven years’ experience — and other firms issuing “special” bonuses on top of regular payouts, the attractiveness of law firms’ culture will be tested to the limit.

Organisational culture is hard to define and maintain. But law firm leaders looking for ways to help retain associates appear to be focusing on better use of data and technology.

A profound shift in the way the top firms approach the digitisation of their services emerged from the law firm submissions to the FT Innovative Lawyers report for North America this year.

For overworked associates putting in, say, 80 hours a week, a move to greater digitisation of processes and interactions with clients can release some of the grind.

Even one of the more venerable firms, Shearman & Sterling, has instituted an entirely new data strategy and created a client-facing technology team to streamline how it delivers services, and to improve the legal advice it offers.

Few global law firms have taken such a root-and-branch approach to overhauling their collection, governance and analysis of data. Shearman & Sterling set up a new unit, Shearman Analytics, to provide data insights to complement the advice of the firm’s lawyers. The firm also improved the way it prices work and has become more efficient in managing operations and non-client facing activity.

“The pandemic brought home the benefits of technology. Law firms have to give up their past,” says David Beveridge, managing partner at Shearman & Sterling.

The benefit of active digitisation, he reflects, is that lawyers will become more like business consultants who solve legally based challenges.

“When you can do document review in an hour, as opposed to having 20 lawyers reading every document, it changes the business model [of a law firm],” says Beveridge.

“Older partners will believe that if you don’t suffer, you are not doing your job. But you don’t measure success by how many hours you spend away from your family.”

Research methodology for FT Innovative Lawyers North America 2021

FT Innovative Lawyers North America 2021 is a ranking, report and awards scheme for lawyers based in the region. The FT and its research partner, RSGI, have devised a unique methodology to rank lawyers on innovation. Law firms and in-house legal teams were invited to make submissions.

The ranking categories focus on areas of legal practice, business and operational management, inclusion and environmental, social and governance issues. The categories and examples featured in the report are drawn from submissions and nominations from law firms and in-house legal teams. Each submission is researched and scored out of 10 for originality, leadership and impact, giving a maximum score of 30 (scores for each entry are not shown in the report). Law firms also completed a questionnaire on their use of data and technology. Each of the 12 questions was scored out of five and benchmarked against peers in the region.

Top-ranked submissions in each category are featured as mini case studies and shortlisted for the FT Innovative Lawyers North America 2021 awards. Some 262 submissions and nominations were received from 63 law firms and 28 in-house legal teams. RSGI researchers assessed them and interviewed clients, senior lawyers, executives and experts between September and November 2021.

Practice of law: Most innovative law firms in North America 2021
The ranking showing the “Practice of law: Most innovative law firms in North America 2021” is based on each firm’s aggregated scores for its ranked submissions across these categories: creating new standards; digital legal practice; dispute resolution; innovative practitioners; racial justice; rescue and recovery; social justice; sustainability; and transformational deals.

Business of law: Most innovative law firms in North America 2021
The ranking showing the “Business of law: Most innovative law firms in North America 2021” is based on each firm’s aggregated scores for its top three submissions across the following categories: change makers; data analytics; diversity and inclusion; innovative leaders; new solutions and people and skills; plus the score for the firm’s use of data and technology.

Most innovative in-house legal teams in North America 2021
Research focused on four areas of a corporate legal department: strategic and risk advice; legal operations; diversity and inclusion; and sustainability and ESG. The list of 10 outstanding in-house legal teams is a selection based on each team’s performance in the report and is based on the sum of scores for all submissions ranked in the report.

RSGI has a record of devising ranking methodologies for professional services firms. RSGI researchers on this report were: Reena SenGupta, Yasmin Lambert, Tom Saunders, Mary Ormerod, Esther Osibodu and Aman Chawla.

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