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From Allen & Overy’s Fuse to Slaughter and May’s Collaborate to Dentons’ Nextlaw Labs, innovation hubs for legal tech seem to have become something of a feature of the corporate law landscape in the UK.
This probably shouldn’t be surprising. Working with emerging legal tech companies helps firms to keep their lawyers up to date with new developments and convince clients that they are committed to innovation. They might even find that, having been advised by their lawyers, the legal tech developers are more likely to produce software useful to them.
For their part, the tech start-ups receive advice and feedback from potential clients, and access to dummy data or ‘sandboxes’ with which to test out prototypes. In some cases, they may also receive office space or help finding investors.
One interesting aspect of these partnerships with legal tech firms, however, is that different firms have approached them in very different ways. For example, while Allen & Overy has (until recently, of course) prided itself on placing Fuse scheme participants in the physical heart of its offices, Slaughter and May’s Collaborate scheme focuses more on advice and mentorship, including from panels of clients and international experts. Meanwhile ‘polycentric’ law firm Dentons has a more arms-length relationship with its incubator Nextlaw Labs, although its Chief Innovation Officer John Fernandez is the innovation advisory’s global chair.
Legal tech innovation hubs are not a phenomenon confined to the UK. Indeed, magic circle firm Clifford Chance has set up its ‘innovation lab’ Create+65 in Singapore, supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board. However, as Bloomberg Law points out, they do seem to be less common in the US than in the UK. One reason for this could be that some US firms – perhaps because of their larger size – have chosen to build legal tech from scratch, rather than looking to outside firms. For example, this has been the approach taken by Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Reed Smith. Another reason could be that some US law firms have preferred to focus on investing financially in legal tech start-ups.
Tech innovation hubs are likely to remain confined to a few firms – they require staff time, access to data, expertise and in some cases office space that many smaller firms will struggle to provide. Nonetheless, their existence is just one example of how law firms, traditionally regarded as late-adopters of new technologies, are learning to embrace them.