Aviva plc Follow The agora in Aviva's Digital Garage, Hoxton Square, London
Insurer Aviva’s ‘Digital Garage’ in Hoxton, London

It is a late summer’s day in Hoxton Square, close to the heart of London’s technology district. In an industrial-style building typical of the city’s start-up scene, teams from insurer Aviva are working on some of the company’s more out-there projects.

Some are developing hardware products; others are tackling software or technological answers to problems. One is a digital piggy bank for children, dubbed Aviva Penny.

Due to be launched later this year for sale on the high street, the concept is not entirely original to Aviva. Santander, the high-street bank, is developing a similar product called Money Monsters, while New Zealand’s ASB Bank already offers Clever Kash, an elephant-shaped cashless money box.

For Aviva, the product is aimed at filling a gap in its market, ultimately by encouraging a habit among young people of saving with the company and using its services for the rest of their life.

Aviva Penny was not dreamt up by an innovation lab separate from the rest of the business. Rather, it is the result of an internal competition for Aviva employees, called the Customer Cup. Teams suggest an idea to solve a loosely defined problem, then go through increasingly challenging rounds to determine the winner. In Aviva Penny’s case, the winning team was led by the company’s in-house lawyers.

The competitive format shows how innovative lawyers can be in developing new products when pushed out of their comfort zone. One team member, Andrea Lloyd, is not a technology expert but an in-house lawyer in the UK life insurance team. She says the competition played to lawyers’ strengths: “As a lawyer, you are constantly having to think about all angles — you can’t just think about something from one angle.”

At law firm Freshfields, meanwhile, Feargus MacDaeid and Nnamdi Emelifeonwu had a different spur for their technological innovation. When Mr MacDaeid, who is registered as blind, started studying to be a lawyer as a new chapter in a career that had included a stint at Microsoft, the technology available did not make it easy. His wife had to read him the law textbooks needed for his studies.

Aviva's Digital Garage on Hoxton Square, London. Built to design apps and bring the insurer into the 21st century. Credit: David Parry/ FT
The competitive format Aviva used brought out lawyers’ innovation © David Parry

As a newly qualified lawyer at Freshfields, the first trainee he worked with on a deal in his banking and finance team was Mr Emelifeonwu, who was fascinated by the way his colleague worked. “We started thinking, how could you make the job easier?” Mr MacDaeid says. “In a dream world, what would you do?”

The result was Define: a software plug-in that helps lawyers access definitions in documents more easily without having to flick through lots of pages. It allows lawyers — including Mr MacDaeid — to quickly review defined terms in context, speeding up the drafting process.

The product, which has been piloted with Freshfields lawyers, has potential applications beyond law firms. “One person’s problem became everyone’s solution,” says Mr McDaeid. “[Define] creates time savings and efficiencies generally. It is very easy to see it as a niche product, but it naturally touches on all sorts of sectors — they use defined terms in fields such as engineering and medicine.”

While Define was initially a self-funded side project for Mr MacDaeid and Mr Emelifeonwu, with external developers to help, the pair left Freshfields in August 2017 to work on it full-time. The firm provided access to office space and kept them close to their target users, so they could continuously refine the program. They have just raised their first funding round of £150,000.

Lawyers at Bird & Bird have also moved into software development. Senior associate lawyer Matt Noble teamed up with Jane Mutimear and Richard Vary, partners in the law firm’s intellectual property practice. They worked with their client, technology group Nokia, and a cast of economists, academics, statisticians and technical specialists for two years to develop a tool to value portfolios of patents accurately. The aim was to find a more effective approach than the traditional one of manually reviewing a handful of patents to form an idea of the value.

The tool, Pattern, was developed initially with Nokia and the smartphone patent wars in mind. “Pattern started work as a project within our normal practice area,” says Ms Mutimear. “We were working with external economists to find a way to value a very large patent portfolio for our client.”

Recognising that it would be impossible to review every patent manually, “we started by using some relatively simple tools to generate spreadsheets containing details on every patent in the relevant industry”, she says. “It was a small step to hire some IT consultants to assist us with bringing in additional bibliographic information for each patent.”

This achieved their aim but was time-consuming, she says. When the next project came along, the team looked unsuccessfully for off-the-shelf technology to help. “It made sense to do it in-house because we were the only people who had the knowledge of what we needed and how to achieve it — we just needed input in certain discrete areas,” says Ms Mutimear.

The early version was limited, but Pattern has since emerged as a sophisticated tool with many possible uses. Hosted in the cloud and using big data, it contains details of every patent ever published, allowing it to be employed as a valuation tool for mergers and acquisitions or client portfolio management as easily as in litigation and infringement proceedings. The firm rolled Pattern out to clients under the firm’s TwoBirds Client Solutions brand in 2017.

“We didn’t imagine we would create something so ambitious. We got to where we are today by a series of smaller steps, accruing knowledge and building our expertise at each stage,” says Ms Mutimear. “If we had imagined creating Pattern from the beginning, we may have been intimidated by the scope of the project and assumed we needed a non-lawyer to run [it].” That they did it themselves shows how adaptable the current generation of lawyers are.

In it for the long run: the hackathon trend gathers pace as firms look to foster innovation and collaboration

Lawyers have latched on to the tech world’s hackathon trend and are using one-off competitions to generate ideas. In the UK last year, the Courts and Tribunals Service and the Judiciary of England and Wales hosted such an event to design tools to support online courts.

Peter Lee, founder of legal engineering consultancy Wavelength.law, whose joint team with the Law Society of England and Wales won the event, says he is increasingly asked to run similar events for law firms and universities. “It’s a really good way of getting people with different skills together,” he says. “Within the hackathon environment, millennials really thrive and older partners can see what their skills are.”

Law firm Pinsent Masons has hosted several events, including the London chapter of a global legal hackathon. Pinsents partner Alison Laird says the format encourages an agile and collaborative way of working that “continues long after a hackathon ends”, adding: “We’re already seeing more experimentation without the fear of failure.”

Meanwhile, law firm Mills & Reeve has tried “innovation weeks” to keep lawyers motivated with a break from the daily grind. Last year, teams earned Lego bricks for solving problems and the team that built the tallest tower with them won. “The innovation weeks have been really successful at generating ideas and driving engagement,” says partner Paul Knight.

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