FT Top 10 legal innovators for North America
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‘There simply is not a more important role in our law firm today,” is how Orrick chief Mitch Zuklie describes the firm’s chief innovation officer, Wendy Butler Curtis.
Colleagues describe her as the driving force behind much of the innovation at a firm selected as North America’s most innovative law firm in the FT/RSG ranking for the past three years.
She believes that engaging colleagues in an industry that is resistant to change rests on three pillars of “people, process and technology”.
Ms Curtis is also sought out by clients for what one describes as her ability to combine thinking outside the box with “a nuanced sense of the law and a practical understanding of judges and courts”.
Rarely have our panel of judges so quickly homed in on a top candidate for innovative individual. But the panel was also taken by Carlos Aiza, a senior partner who transformed Creel, García-Cuéllar, Aiza y Enríquez from a small player into a leading Mexican firm with several firsts under its belt.
Leyla Boulton, chair of judging panel
OVERALL WINNER: Wendy Butler Curtis
Chief innovation officer
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
Wendy Butler Curtis describes her greatest challenge and accomplishment as “getting folks to let go of the binary view of the legal world: lawyers vs non-lawyers, partners vs non-partners, and to appreciate the diversity of talent and roles that make a team great”.
She has introduced more than a dozen new roles at the firm, covering data science, statistics, project management, technology, service delivery and innovation.
When Orrick helped Microsoft on its biggest case this year, 42 per cent of the work was done by these new professionals.
Ms Curtis practised as a mass tort litigator and joined Orrick in 2008 to establish the firm’s ediscovery group. As Orrick’s chief innovation officer, she has introduced many new technologies and delivery models that have transformed the way the firm operates and works with clients.
She leads Orrick Analytics, a team of lawyers, statisticians and other professionals that use technology data analytics to complete high-volume document review work.
They are now housed within the global operations centre she helped to create, which also builds new products and tools such as CaseStream, which in 2018 generated $30m in revenue from about 800 clients.
Senior partner, executive committee member, and head of the financial services practice group
Creel, García-Cuéllar, Aiza y Enríquez
Carlos Aiza joined Creel in 1994 after working at a New York law firm. Returning to Mexico, it was not an obvious decision to join what was a traditional, family-run enterprise — with just seven partners and 25 associates — over one of the more established financial services law firms. However, Mr Aiza says, he wanted the challenge of creating something new.
Mr Aiza became a partner after three years and in 2011 took over leading the firm’s strategy. He set about modernising it by introducing a more meritocratic pay system, overhauling its governance structure with a new executive committee, and building specialisation within the firm. A number of partners left but the firm subsequently enjoyed rapid growth and is now the second largest in the country, with a leading finance practice.
In his own work, Mr Aiza has been involved in many firsts that have helped to develop financial markets in Mexico. These innovations have included helping to finance the country’s housing and auto sectors.
Sullivan & Cromwell
One of the most influential and high-profile M&A and corporate governance lawyers in the US, Frank Aquila has played a role in many of the largest and most complex deals the firm has handled. He joined Sullivan & Cromwell 35 years ago and, in addition to his active practice, is a member of its management committee.
Mr Aquila advised brewer InBev in its hostile bid for Anheuser-Busch In 2008. Despite uncertain credit markets in the onset of the financial crisis, he identified a way for InBev to assure its financing through the UK financial markets, which ultimately allowed a successful takeover.
Mr Aquila helped to develop an approach to speed up mergers and acquisition transactions, which was used to allow Kraft to complete its $55bn merger with Heinz in just 100 days.
This year, Mr Aquila’s work for publicly traded Impax Laboratories in its merger with privately owned Amneal Pharmaceuticals is recognised in the report for its creative use of a so-called Up-C tax structure for the newly merged listed business.
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius
Before joining Morgan Lewis, Tess Blair had studied fine arts and industrial design and started a small business.
When she joined the legal profession, she knew “precious little about the practice of law but a lot about creativity and grittiness”, she says. From her first year as an attorney at the firm, Ms Blair began investigating how to improve the process of litigation discovery.
The firm’s ediscovery practice started with Ms Blair, one associate and one secretary. Since 2004, she has redesigned the practice many times and built a hybrid team comprising more than 50 technologists and over 150 lawyers trained in project management and Six Sigma, the management technique for process improvement.
Morgan Lewis was one of first firms to offer technology-assisted review for ediscovery and Ms Blair is now immersed in developing the next generation of technology tools for the practice. With them comes an opportunity to apply her creative training to product design and user experience in developing new tools and service.
Holland & Knight
When not representing financial institutions in complex transactions, Josias Dewey practises his other passion: coding. He has developed new applications and applied machine learning tools to help automate a range of manual processes at the firm. Mr Dewey programmed an application used by lawyers to track post-closing requirements in financing transactions. In addition, he has also worked with data scientists and programmers to create models to train machine-learning technologies.
Mr Dewey also has a leading practice in the emerging area of blockchain and distributed ledger technology and helps clients develop proof-of-concept applications. He created the BlockBlade tool with an outside engineer to help a client locate and freeze $500,000 in virtual currency it had lost as the result of a hack. The tool is being developed to help other clients track illicit cryptocurrency transactions.
He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Law, where he focuses on technologies that are changing the practice of real estate law, and on the skills law students will need in the future.
Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox
When Tracy-Gene Durkin began her legal career 30 years ago, one of the most important early decisions she made was to focus on design patents.
What was considered a relatively minor part of the US patent system — design patents protect the distinct visual or ornamental design of a manufactured item — has grown in importance over the past 10 years, and grabbed attention, for instance, as the focus of litigation between Apple and Samsung over their smartphones. Ms Durkin became a leading authority on design patents and won clients such as Apple. Three of the design patents she helped the company acquire were at the centre of its litigation with Samsung, which was settled ultimately in 2018.
Ms Durkin heads the firm’s mechanical design and trademark group, where she has created design patent portfolios for brands including Apple, Pepsi and Sun Products to help them protect their consumer products.
Also a pioneer within her firm, she was the first woman elected equity director in 1994, and the first woman to serve on the firm’s executive committee.
Neil Steiner has worked on US voting rights cases since his first year as a partner in 2006, when he was involved in an action that sought to force the state of Ohio to comply with the federal National Voter Registration Act.
The case ultimately resulted in more than 400,000 Ohio citizens registering to vote, who might otherwise have been excluded.
Since then, he has continued to challenge laws that restrict or discriminate against voters by bringing cases in eight states, including Georgia, Texas and New York. His work in 2018 blocking a law brought by Kris Kobach, secretary of state for Kansas, which would have required individuals to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote, is recognised in this report. Mr Steiner and his team successfully argued that the law violated the NVRA, and their success in court forms the basis for blocking similar laws in Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.
Mr Steiner combines this work with his role as a litigator, defending clients such as hedge funds, shareholders and financial institutions in investigations.
Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft
When he graduated from college, Lary Stromfeld undertook social work with senior citizens before going to law school. The experience showed him the important role lawyers can play in solving real-world problems.
He began his career working on financing for public housing, hospital and infrastructure projects, before developing a broad finance practice that ranges from derivatives to bankruptcies.
Mr Stromfeld’s work has contributed to setting precedents and standards in financing structures. He devised new standard documentation for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association to comply with Dodd-Frank regulation, and is helping the Federal Reserve develop new standards to replace Libor for all cash products.
Partner, executive director, pro bono
Angela Vigil has spent much of her career promoting the idea that lawyers have a professional responsibility to do pro bono work. She helped found the Association of Pro Bono Counsel 12 years ago.
In her own practice, she advocates for what she describes as “an often voiceless and invisible population” of homeless and street children. She created the annual Children’s Rights Summit to bring lawyers in private practice and corporate legal departments together with academics and child rights advocates. They discuss challenges facing vulnerable children, and explore ways in which new technology and other innovations can support their legal needs. Ms Vigil developed the Legal Atlas for Street Children, which maps laws and policies around the world.
Working with non-profit law firm Columbia Legal Services in Seattle and businesses across the US, Ms Vigil and a team at Baker McKenzie created the Homeless Youth Handbook, which provides a guide for homeless youth, social workers, law enforcement and other non-legal professionals to understand and address the legal rights of children.
Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Barry Wolf played a leading role in two periods of growth that have come to define the New York-based global law firm. From when he joined the firm’s tax department in 1984, he participated in the rapid evolution of the private equity industry. In 1999, he was appointed to lead the firm’s private equity practice, which has fuelled Weil, Gotshal & Manges’s growth in the US and across the world.
In 2010, he took on the role of executive partner at the firm. “The legal industry was at an inflection point. Coming off the 2008-09 financial crisis, it was clear law firms needed to think and function like businesses,” he says. Mr Wolf set a new long-term strategy, appointed younger department heads in their forties, and emphasised the firm’s entrepreneurial culture.
His approach to business management has helped it achieve record profits, which reached $3.63m per partner in 2017. He has also ushered in a range of initiatives, including cutting the time it takes to become a partner from nine and a half to seven and a half years.
Profiles compiled by RSG Consulting
Innovative Lawyers North America Ranking 2018
- Top Innovative Law Firms: six of the best overall
- Most Innovative Law Firms: Business of Law
- Most Innovative Law Firms: Legal Expertise
- Rule of Law | • In-house
- Data, Knowledge and Intelligence | • In-house
- Managing and Developing Talent | • In-house
- New Business and Service Delivery Models | • In-house
- New Products and Services | • In-house
- Strategy and Changing Behaviours | • In-house
- Technology | • In-house
- Accessing New Markets and Capital | • In-house
- Enabling Business Growth and Transformation | • In-house
- Managing Complexity and Scale | • In-house
- Litigation & Disputes | • In-house
- Creating a New Standard | • In-house
- Canada: Legal Expertise
- Canada: Business of Law