They had powerful ideas and a will to see them executed.
Also the benefit of being born in the right era.
that this little 20-person law firm was going to ex-
pand regionally, nationally, and internationally,”
Walker recalls. “The guy looked at Clint and con-
cluded that he was unbalanced.” The 3L went to
another California firm, while Stevenson became
Latham’s managing partner in 1967 and brought his
vision to life: first, a second floor in their Los An-
geles building, then offices in Orange
County, Washington, New York, and
Chicago. “He was a genius,” Walker
says about Stevenson. “He really saw
stuff happening and understood how
the world would roll out.”
It may all seem obvious now: L.A.
would lose its banks and its heavy in-
dustries, clients wouldn’t stay in one
place anymore, and ambitious law firms
would have to burst out of their zip
codes or risk getting left behind. But it
was all pretty murky when Stevenson
saw the future. As we make clear in our
Innovators list, it wasn’t just Steven-
son. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, Allen Holmes at
Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue and W. James MacIn-
tosh at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius sensed that the
world they knew was edging toward change and that
the firms they managed needed to respond.
Why them? Why did they see what others
missed? Why did they act on what they saw while
others chose not to believe their lying eyes? We’ll
never know. What we do know is that the stories of
these three lawyers embody some of the latest thinking about the nature of innovation itself. In his provocative and charming 2010 book, Where Good Ideas
Come From, popular science writer Steve Johnson
argues that more often than not the myth of the solitary inventor-hero is just that: a myth that comforts
readers of biographies.
Instead he sees ideas as a kind of network. “Good
ideas,” he writes, “are not conjured out of thin air;
they are built out of a collection of existing parts,
the composition of which expands (and, occasionally,
contracts) over time.” As proof—not coincidence—he
cites what scholars “now call ‘the multiple’: a bril-
liant idea occurs to an . . . inventor somewhere in the
world, and he goes public with his remarkable find-
ing, only to discover that three other minds had in-
dependently come up with the same idea in the past
year.” As examples in the modern age he cites the tele-
phone, telegraph, steam engine, and radio. To which,
with appropriate humility, we can add the idea to turn
big local law firms into giant national institutions.
Ideas are important, but so is timing. The great
19th-century British inventor Charles Babbage
sketched out plans for an analytical engine, plans that
Johnson says anticipated the marvelous post–World
War II computers. But he was too far ahead of his
time, he had skipped too many steps, and he didn’t
have, in Johnson’s phrase, the necessary spare parts
to build his machine. In our terms, Stevenson and
Holmes could take their firms national, but it was
only after the bold moves made by their successors,
Jack Walker and Dick Pogue, that that they could
take another step and open offices around the globe.
As editors and journalists, we are new-idea junkies. It suits our work and our pecuniary interests.
There is a serious school of thought, though, that argues that ideas don’t equal innovation. Rather, management guru Peter Drucker and his followers have
argued for nearly three decades that it’s adoption of
those ideas that are the real innovation. “Innovation
does not cause adoption; it is adoption,” write Peter
Denning and Robert Dunham in The Innovator’s Way.
That insight will resonate for any lawyer who, having
participated in a lengthy firm strategic planning process, has watched in despair as the PowerPoint decks
and planning binders are carefully tucked onto a top
shelf, never to be disturbed again.
Our 50 innovators didn’t settle for that treatment.
They and their ideas weren’t to be denied. Some were
princes among men (and women), others were, well,
difficult human beings. That will not surprise any
reader of Walter Isaacson’s energetic biography of
Steve Jobs, a true innovator by any definition and an
extremely difficult person by Isaacson’s account. As
we all navigate this age of change, it is valuable to remember that being a jerk while innovating is only a
description of behavior, not an excuse.
Jack Walker, the retired managing partner of Latham & Watkins, likes to tell a story about
Clint Stevenson, his predecessor and one of our 50 innovators (page 29). In the early 1960s,
Stevenson was interviewing a 3L for an associate slot at his Los Angeles firm. “Clint told him
Press, ALM’s editor in chief, can be reached at email@example.com.