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. In the early 1960s, Stevenson was interviewing a 3L for an associate slot at his Los Angeles firm.

"Clint told him that this little 20-person law firm was going to expand regionally, nationally, and internationally," Walker recalls. "The guy looked at Clint and concluded 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 Angeles 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 industries, 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 Stevenson. In Cleveland and Philadelphia, Allen Holmes at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue and W. James MacIntosh 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 brilliant idea occurs to an . . . inventor somewhere in the world, and he goes public with his remarkable finding, only to discover that three other minds had independently come up with the same idea in the past year." As examples in the modern age he cites the telephone, 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.

Aric Press, ALM's editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.