Digital leaders: lawyers have had to race to keep up with the pace of business innovation during the pandemic © Efi Chalikopoulou

When the Financial Times published its first Innovative Lawyers report covering Asia-Pacific in 2014, it revealed some startling disparities between different countries in how innovative their law firms and in-house lawyers were.

Australian law firms, for example, were innovating more than some of the most advanced firms in the UK. By contrast, managing partners at Japanese law firms were not convinced that being innovative was right for a traditional profession.

Most innovative law firms in Asia-Pacific 2021

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Today, many Japanese firms perform well in the FT’s rankings of innovative law firms and are increasingly embracing a multidisciplinary, automated future.

For example, Nishimura & Asahi last year set up a digital transformation group that provides both legal and non-legal support for clients on a range of new technologies, data and regulations to help them undertake digital transformation. This kind of offering is unusual at Japanese firms and more common in the UK, the US and Europe, where firms have long augmented their legal expertise with complementary disciplines.

In addition, the Nishimura digital transformation group works across legal practice areas and industry sectors. Kazuhiro Takei, the Nishimura partner who set up the initiative, says the most significant feature of the group is that it is multidisciplinary and cross-sectional in its approach.

The idea of moving away from legal practice areas as the structure for organising a law firm’s way of working is truly radical thinking — from any lawyer, anywhere. Historically, law firms have organised themselves around their own legal specialisms — unlike other businesses, which mirror the structure of their clients.

This trend of lawyers broadening out their roles is highlighted in two sections in particular in this report: developing the market and individual practitioners.

As the need to work around the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates the digital transformation of many companies, lawyers have had to race to keep up with the pace of business innovation. A prime example of this came from King & Wood Mallesons, which created the legal standardisation required for the first digital bank guarantee in Australia. When lockdown safety measures precluded the use of paper guarantees, the firm worked with Lygon, a consortium that includes three leading Australian banks, to create a digital version using blockchain technology.

The work — which would have been “spooky” for a traditional lawyer, according to Scott Farrell, the KWM partner involved — has provided a new business model for the issuance of guarantees. The time taken to issue a guarantee has also been reduced from one month to a single day. The project involved corporate, banking, regulatory and competition lawyers working alongside bankers, data scientists and digital engineers.

“The work probably touched on, even in the firm, five or six traditional [practice] areas,” Farrell says. “But the skill wasn’t just corralling people, it was corralling ideas.” Law and tech had to work in harmony with each other.

In the innovative practitioners’ section, it is apparent that several of the individuals featured could simply be referred to as “digital lawyers”. From pioneering non-legal advice to making the law easier to access and understand via legal design, these practitioners are able to straddle converging industries, such as finance and technology. Grace Chong at Simmons & Simmons in Singapore, and Scott Thiel at DLA Piper in Hong Kong, are both versatile in the fintech sector, for example. Another featured practitioner, Sara Rayment, trained as a lawyer at KWM before setting up her own legal design law firm, Inkling Legal Design, in Australia to help revolutionise the content of legal documentation and make it more consumer-friendly.

Much of the innovative work by lawyers makes the law easier to access and businesses more sustainable — even if these are not the prime objectives. One feature of Nishimura’s digital transformation group is its focus on sustainable governance, helping clients think digitally and consider their environment, social and governance (ESG) obligations.

Thiel believes his tokenisation platform for asset-backed securities — in a test by DLA Piper, the first asset used was a piece of fine art — has the potential to increase access to finance because it lowers the entry level for investors.

Nearly all the firms in the FT’s annual ranking of the most innovative law firms in the region (see table) have noticeably embraced digital transformation and sustainability. Those at the top are all becoming “future-ready” law firms.

Most innovative law firms in Asia-Pacific 2021
RankLaw firmTotal scoreSubmissions scoreData and tech scoreHQ
1Winner: King & Wood Mallesons*1207743Asia-Pacific
2Winner: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer**1187444International
3Herbert Smith Freehills1156847International
4Allen & Overy1126745International
5Baker McKenzie1107040International
6Gilbert + Tobin1086345Asia-Pacific
7Hogan Lovells1076146International
7Pinsent Masons1076740International
9Corrs Chambers Westgarth1026438Asia-Pacific
9Nishimura & Asahi1026834Asia-Pacific
12Mayer Brown1006238International
14Shearman & Sterling975740International
15Anand and Anand956431Asia-Pacific
16White & Case945539International
18Paul Hastings925537International
19Norton Rose Fulbright915536International
20Lander & Rogers895534Asia-Pacific
21Rajah & Tann Singapore885434Asia-Pacific
22Algo Legal845133Asia-Pacific
23DLA Piper834637International
*Winner of the FT Innovative Lawyers 2021 award for ‘Most innovative law firm in Asia-Pacific’, based on combined scores for top three submissions and response to data and technology survey / **Winner’ of the FT Innovative Lawyers 2021 award for ‘Most Innovative Law firm in Asia-Pacific (International)’, based on combined scores for top three submissions and response to data and technology survey for a law firm headquartered outside Asia-Pacific

Among the international firms — those that do not have their headquarters in Asia-Pacific — Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is an example of a leading organisation using its credibility and influence to have an impact on both local and global social and trade questions. In the past year it has created an app for asylum seekers in Hong Kong that helps them know their rights. The firm has also been trying to ease trade frictions between China and the west by helping to facilitate Chinese investment deals in Europe.

However, the standout innovative law firm in the Asia-Pacific region is King & Wood Mallesons. Its commitment to the digital economy can be seen throughout its business, from training its lawyers to improve their digital literacy to helping Chinese clients better understand the implications of using data in an international market place.

More importantly, KWM is a firm that continues to show resilience. As Farrell puts it: “The world is changing so fast. Everything I know has to be changed again.”

Research methodology

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

The categories focus on different areas of legal practice, business and operational management, and social justice and inclusion. 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 for a maximum score of 30 (scores for each individual entry are not shown in the report).

In addition, law firms were asked to complete a questionnaire on use of data and technology. Each of the 10 questions was scored out of five and benchmarked against peers in that region.

Top-ranked submissions in each category are featured as mini case studies and shortlisted for the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific 2021 awards.

Some 250 submissions and nominations were received from 65 different law firms and 30 in-house legal teams.

RSG researchers assessed the submissions and interviewed the firms’ clients, senior lawyers, executives, and experts between February and April 2021.

Most innovative law firms in Asia Pacific 2021
The ranking showing the “most innovative law firm in Asia Pacific” and “most innovative law firm in Asia Pacific (international)” is based on each firm’s aggregated scores for its top three submissions plus the score for the firm’s use of data and technology. Firms could make up to five submissions. Awards were given for the top-ranked firm headquartered in Asia Pacific and the top-ranked international firm headquartered or with significant operations outside the region.

Most innovative in-house legal teams in Asia Pacific 2021
Research focused on six areas of a corporate legal department: inclusion and social justice; strategic and risk advice; operational management; people and skills; legal design; and digital solutions. 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.

RSG Consulting
RSG Consulting has a record of devising ranking methodologies for professional services firms.

The RSG researchers on this report were: Reena SenGupta, Yasmin Lambert, Kate Barlow, Mary Ormerod and Tom Saunders.

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