Running a tech incubator – the Allen & Overy experience

Guest post by Shruti Ajitsaria, head of Fuse, Allen & Overy’s tech innovation space

Ajitsaria: Not just in the conversation but better conversationalists

Fuse exists to fuel a culture of digital innovation in the legal sector. It enables A&O lawyers and our clients to co-develop ideas with some of the brightest and most promising entrepreneurs.

When we first started Fuse, just over six years ago, it was as an experiment. The team was just me, a front-of-house colleague and the oversight of our then innovation partner.

If the road to success is littered with mistakes, this was our first. We were initially tentative about pouring resources into Fuse and underestimated the scale of what we’d taken on. There was good reason for that, and I’m glad we weren’t reckless, but in hindsight we should’ve had a much bigger team from the get-go.

This is a great problem to have, of course, because it’s indicative of just how successful Fuse was to become. Never did we imagine that we’d be here, about to welcome our seventh cohort through the doors.

And we do literally welcome them through our doors. One of the earliest decisions we faced was whether or not to house Fuse within the London A&O office. Perhaps, we thought, it would be better in a dedicated co-working space? Perhaps there should be more delineation between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ law?

In the end, we decided to take over a portion of the first floor of our Bishops Square office. I’m so glad that we did. It means our lawyers can – and do – walk in and out freely, without an appointment, and for as much or as little time as they like.

Fuse exists to facilitate the entire firm, and it’s only ever going to be as successful as everyone in the firm makes it. Having a physical presence in the A&O office means that the wider network is within easy reach of our cohort members.

It also accelerates the merging of ‘new’ law (which of course isn’t so new, anymore) into everything that A&O does.

Our lawyers gain a deep understanding of lawtech developments which are directly relevant to their day-to-day work. They take part in full-fledged pilot programmes, too, testing the tech in situ. This not only gives the cohort members invaluable feedback but helps lawyers to develop their understanding of how tech might advance their work.

Having physical office space also means that our lawyers can bring clients in whenever they like. In fact, the level of client interaction has been one of Fuse’s biggest surprises. Every year, our clients are excited to see what the new cohort is doing, how they work, and whether the tech can directly benefit them.

For example, Definely and Avvoka, amongst others, were introduced to clients through our network, who were so impressed with the technology that they wanted to use it themselves. It doesn’t get more satisfying than that.

And for the firm as a whole, too, this is one of the best things about Fuse: we can sustain a meaningful relationship with our clients off-deal and outside of matters.

Since 2020, we’ve had a dedicated ‘client-nominated stream’ for each round of applications. About one third of each cohort now comes via this route, and this year, we will organise them according to the theme of digital assets, which allows us to gather insights and keep learning in the way our clients want us to.

We’re not just in the conversation but, as it were, better conversationalists as a result.

One of the most satisfying areas of the job is when we are presented with a specific problem to solve. For example, a group of our litigation partners had been seeking for a number of years a tool which could help them model and analyse their disputes using decision theory, in order to demonstrate to clients the risks and rewards of legal proceedings, as compared with a negotiated settlement.

They discussed it with us and we brought in a company to do just that. We don’t know, of course, whether this will all pay off – whether the pilot will work or whether our clients will find this form of analysis valuable. Or we might end up solving a problem that’s completely different to the one we began with.

This openness inherent in Fuse has characterised other learnings, too. When we were planning for the first round of applications, we wondered whether or not to put in place certain eligibility conditions: only drafting technology, for example, or only companies at a certain stage of their development.

But implicit to such conditions is an assumption that we know what will work and what won’t; what lawyers need and what they don’t. We decided, instead, not to put in place any parameters on the type of company that could apply. This has ended up being a major strength.

As the old saying goes: you don’t know what you don’t know, which is especially true when you’re bringing together technology and law. Only by being open to surprise and learning at every turn do we get the sort of happy accidents that result in game-changing companies or tech.

Uncertainty can be tricky for us lawyers. We never take risks on client confidentiality or technological soundness, but if I’ve learned anything these past six and a half years, it’s that an endeavour like Fuse doesn’t pay off unless you’re willing to take some calculated risks.

It’s to the eternal credit of everyone at A&O that they’ve been willing to take leaps of faith with us. And I couldn’t be more proud.

Applications for the seventh Fuse cohort are open now, closing on 6 February. Apply here.

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