Barclays Eagle Lab legal tech incubator launches: here’s why you should embrace it

Barclays last night (19 June) formally launched its Eagle Lab legal tech incubator in partnership with The Law Society, which at its core is an attempt to help the legal sector catch up with its fintech peers and “turbo-charge London’s law-tech ecosystem.”

The launch, which took place at the Mayfair Hotel in Stratton Street, brought together an impressive array of City law firm Eagle Lab partners, senior Law Society representatives (who were notably out in force), startups such as Avokka, Legatics, Ruby Datum and Libryo as well as a significant number of the Legal Geek community, who joined later because of an unfortunate diary clash with the debrief of Legal Geek’s round the world tour. CIOs were notably absent.

Respected Barclays UK GC Stephanie Pagni kicked off the launch, describing how Barclays’ Notting Hill legal tech Eagle Lab incubator was inspired in large part by its flagship lab in Cambridge, where legal engineering firm became its first ever member.

Just over a year ago members of the Barclays legal team visited the Cambridge incubator and were inspired. Pagni said: “Our judicial system is recognised and respected globally for its fairness and it should also be recognised for its speed and agility, underpinned by technology.”

She added: “We want to be part of the force turbo charging that innovation.”

Reading between the lines rather than putting words in Pagni’s mouth, the legal sector, which seriously lags fintech, now really needs to get its act together in order to properly support the likes of Barclays and its financial institution competitors.

While the number of legal tech startups is growing every day, law firms remain risk averse and wedded to traditional practices. In a video played at the Eagle Lab launch, Avokka co-founder David Howorth said: “Trying to convince people that there are new and better ways to work is one of our biggest challenges.”

The hope is that Eagle Lab will provide more opportunities to have those conversations.

Being based in Notting Hill, the big question is whether City partners will take the time to visit the lab and engage in the way that it is hoped: one of the huge benefits enjoyed by startups in Allen & Overy’s onsite tech hub Fuse is that partners regularly drop in to speak to them about potential use cases, which will inevitably be more difficult when the incubator is in West London.

It is early days, and, as Legal IT Insider was reminded gently by a senior member of the Law Society, this is a very good start as far a creating a London tech hub goes. We agree, but it would undoubtedly be better off located somewhere more central.

London may have law firm led accelerators but this is altogether different and speaking at the launch, incoming vice president Simon Davies said; “I urge you to go to the labs, to see the innovators and to find out what they are developing to save lawyers time and help keep the UK ahead.”

Eagle Lab has the potential to be a hugely successful partnership for the Law Society: through its associations with Legal Geek and now the Barclays incubator, the Law Society is demonstrating its relevance to the City, at the same time distancing itself from its disastrous and costly joint venture to create conveyancing portal Veyo, which was scrapped in 2015.

It is also tapping into the growing sense of urgency and dare we say, even panic among the highest echelons of the judiciary, that if the UK legal sector doesn’t get its act together when it comes to law tech, its global standing could come under threat.

Speaking at the launch The Rt Hon Lord Keen said: “There is a law tech revolution happening all over the world and we want to make sure that the UK leads it.” There are ‘threats’ from overseas in the form of Canada’s Legal Innovation Zone designed to improve the Canadian legal system and Lord Keen also highlighted efforts being made by the Singapore Academy of Law programme to incubate new ways of delivering legal services.

“Those jurisdictions that embrace technology will increase their share of the global pie,” he said, adding that facilitating the adoption of legal technology remains a key focus for Lord Chancellor.

For some members of the startup community present, the talks appeared to be grey haired lawyers being lined up to say all the right things.

And therein, probably, lies the rub. Yes the legal sector is too set in its ways and in need of a shake up but the startup community also needs a far better understanding of the market that it is expected to help revolutionise.

Barclays’ multi-partner incubator represents an opportunity – one that should be seized – for startups and the legal community to meet, find common ground, and help develop a new common language.