Fly like an Eagle: Barclays joins raft of firms with City law-tech incubator launch

Banking giant Barclays is joining the trio of law firms which have already introduced forms of legal technology incubators by launching its own space for the rapidly-growing UK legal start-up market, which received about £16m of investment in the 18 months from 2016.

The 100-person law-tech Eagle Lab in London’s Notting Hill is backed by 13 law firms and several other industry players including the Law Society, PwC, start-up community Legal Geek, as well as the University of Liverpool and University College London.

It joins a network of 15 Eagle Labs the bank set up to help start-up businesses, originally converting old bank spaces across the UK. Barclays already hosts three law-tech companies in its Eagle Labs, including Wavelength Law, Prose, and Aalbun.

Barclays UK general counsel Stephanie Pagni commented: ‘This initiative will help trigger a transformation in law-tech with significant potential, addressing not just commercial but also societal legal problems, and drawing on the expertise of data scientists, engineers and a range of other graduates and contributors from our university partners.’

The firms which signed up are Allen & Overy (A&O), which already runs its own ‘innovation hub’ called Fuse, Baker McKenzie, Brethertons, Capital Law, Clifford Chance (CC), Clyde & Co, DWF, Gowling WLG, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright, Simmons & Simmons, SO Legal and TLT.

The incubator will provide mentoring and workshops, including on-site advice from Barclays staff, as well as feedback from the partnering law firms. The universities will provide academic support in areas such as artificial intelligence and law-tech, while Legal Geek, which had more than 1000 people at its annual conference last year, will organise events.

Barclays chief executive Ashok Vaswani said the UK had every reason to be a world leader in law-tech. He added: ‘It is home to some of the greatest law firms in the world and we want to help build on the success of its legal sector, and play a leading role in transforming law-tech in the future. The impressive range of partners supporting this initiative shows just how important this is.’

Barclays will meet potential lab residents to assess their aim, scalability, relevance, funding status and sustainability, as well as how they would benefit from the ‘ecosystem’. The lab’s partners will discuss applications but Barclays will make the final decision. No detail was provided about when the lab will begin, other than it will be ‘confirmed soon’.

A report by Legal Geek and Thomson Reuters last July found investment into UK start-ups focused on legal technology had reach £16m in the preceding 18 months. It said the market is still at an embryonic stage, but there are encouraging levels of investment into the sector. The report’s start-up ‘map’ features more than 60 start-ups active in the UK. About 180 have applied to be on this year’s map.

Legal Geek founder Jimmy Vestbirk commented on Barclays’ move: ‘The law-tech space has huge potential for growth, and with initiatives like this, I wholeheartedly believe that the same success we have seen in the UK’s thriving fintech scene can be replicated.’

The bank’s foray into law-tech incubators comes following A&O’s Fuse hub, which launched with eight start-ups in September last year, and Mishcon de Reya’s MDR LAB, which had six law-tech start-ups working in the firm’s London HQ over 10 weeks a few months previously. Dentons was the trailblazer, launching Nextlaw Labs in 2015.

Rumours have been swirling about Barclays launching such an initiative in the law-tech market, and it will be interesting to see which start-ups join the incubator. Many of those in the law firm incubators speak of the benefit of direct interaction with lawyers and clients and how that helps mould their products, but Barclays could see this as an opportunity to have more direct input from the in-house side. On the other hand, the sheer number of partners could lead to tension and difficulty establishing the clear solutions these start-ups need to provide.

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