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Allen & Overy Legal Tech Initiative – R&D at Last but a Question

I have long suggested that law firms invest in research and development to deliver more value to clients. Now one has. The Lawyer (UK, April 7) writes in Allen & Overy invests seed corn funding into “experimental” technology group i2 that the firm is funding and

“launching an experimental ‘ideas and investment’ group aimed at developing new technology-related opportunities, including in the area of artificial intelligence (AI).

The firm said the group, known as “i2”, consists primarily of several of its younger lawyers as well as technology specialists.”

A&O has an impressive innovation track record, including the first (or among the first) to open a low cost center in Belfast in 2010. In May 2014, it published a white paper, Unbundling a market – The appetite for new legal services models. It also offers Peerpoint, a flex lawyer service and online legal services.

So this legal tech initiative takes another big step to stay ahead of the market. For that, I applaud the firm.

I do, however, have two questions about the firm’s decision to assign primarily younger lawyers to the project. The first is empirical: do younger lawyers have a better ability than older lawyers to innovate in legal tech? I have no data but the anecdotal evidence I see suggests that age and ability to adopt tech and innovate with it do not correlate. For example, I recently guest lectured at a DC area law school on the topic of legal tech. Of 20 students, 19 acknowledged that they did not use computers for more than social media, web browsing, or word processing. Meanwhile, plenty of older lawyers use Excel, multiple web services, and actively think about and deploy tech in how they practice.

If the data do show that younger lawyers are better, we arrive at the second question: how convincing will the partners that run firms find them? It’s one thing to come up with innovations, another to cause them to be adopted. Again, data are lacking but my guess is that older lawyers would have more success in persuading their peers to accept innovation. Furthermore, investments notwithstanding, assigning mainly younger lawyers to a venture may signal to partners that the venture is not all that important.

A&O has taken a fabulous step, one that I hope other firms emulate. I hope my questions prove to be irrelevant.