Annual lists serve a lot of functions. They offer a clear snapshot of an industry in transition. They also provide a valuable yardstick and often can verify long-term trends. Take the latest installment of Financial Planning's RIA Leaders issue, which features our ranking of the nation's top RIA firms.

The firms that are moving up the list - as well as the firms that have moved off the list - are at the foundation of our cover story. To best highlight the shifting dynamics, we focused on fee-only firms and excluded those with broker-dealer affiliations or with large stakes held by banks or other outside institutions.

FP senior editor Ann Marsh, who wrote the cover story, says she was struck during her reporting by the way that independence was a decisive factor for advisors as they developed plans to grow their practices.

Marsh tells me that, back in the late 1990s, when Rob Francais founded the RIA that would become Los Angeles-based Aspiriant - which ranked No. 1 on our list of fastest-growing, fee-only firms and No. 3 on our overall list of fee-only firms - it could be difficult to convince prospects that they needed the services of a comprehensive financial planner. That is no longer the case.

"We were marketing into a headwind," Francais says. "Today, we are marketing into a light breeze and the breeze is going not against us but with us," he says, adding that "the industry is hitting its stride."

Yet at the same time, it remains to be seen how the majority will handle the challenge of structuring their ownership. As our cover story, which begins on p. 34, points out, growth in the RIA space is rapidly outpacing the rest of the financial services industry. However, more new entrants are choosing a dually registered business model.

By presenting a list of firms without broker-dealer affiliations, we've captured those independents whose world view has required them to adopt (and heavily fund) complex succession plans. Many other RIAs simply won't or can't devote the time and resources to doing the same.

The result is that the definition of independence among RIAs will remain a subject of debate for years to come. And the giants that look likely to emerge in this space, as consolidation continues, will evolve into very different players, due to the decisions about ownership they are making - or failing to make - now.