Adopting artificial intelligence (AI) legal tech in research contracts management?

By Dan King and Rob Johnson, 10th June 2019

There is much commentary on the opportunities and potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to make significant and potentially far reaching changes in HE and education. Recent articles in The Conversation and The Guardian point to opportunities in improved student learning, student experience and service; NESTA reported on the use of AI in UK education. Some universities are already piloting AI-based systems, for example, Staffordshire University’s “Beacon” an AI coach to help support students.

So how is this relevant to our work? Well, in 2018 Research Consulting led a study looking at research contract management across 30 UK and Australian universities. The 30 project participants reported handling 50,000 contracts over the three-year study period. And the time per contract was measured in hours. Astonishingly, saving just 20 minutes of time saving per agreement would have delivered 10 working years in saved time for these hard-pressed teams. The study findings flagged a number of issues that the legal tech sector has in their sights.

  • Limited use of management systems to support contract teams deliver their work (although new systems, linked to research information systems, were being adopted).
  • Low adoption of existing digital workflow technologies, such as e-signatures, to streamline processes and aid efficiency.
  • Significant deals flows and work pressures on teams across a wide range of contract types.
  • Many agreements are based on templates, developed sector wide to improve efficiency, but often need to be varied or adjusted for individual projects.
  • Staffing – many were qualified by experience with only a quarter of staff in our study holding professional legal qualifications, and only 1 in 8 a law degree. 

Now the “traditionally cautious” legal sector has been one of the areas mooted for greatest change as a result of AI technologies. Historically the sector has been a late adopter of technology, to the extent that many law firms were resistant to using email even into the mid-2000s. But this seems to be changing and legal tech is a fast-emerging sector. For example in 2017 the Law Society partnered with equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs, in an effort to provide law firms with an opportunity to invest in the fledgling legal tech enterprises

Joanne Frears, a commercial, IP and technology law solicitor at Lionshead Law:  “Lawyers need to think more like technologists and consider what AI could mean for the entire practice of legal service delivery”.   

Currently AI in practice largely means clever forms of computerised automation and search. There are two ways AI is shaping legal services that are directly relevant to university research contract teams:

  • Augmenting the human work, which is how AI has helped in a wide range of other applications (e.g. medical screening). Here AI helps the legal teams by screening to identify and flag anomalies against the agreements it was “trained” on, reducing analysis time. 
  • Helping the ‘client’ to prepare the agreement using templates and proformas to produce the initial agreement draft with input from the researchers themselves. For example. could this approach support the development of agreements relating to doctoral research students – one of the areas flagged in our 2018 study as being particularly challenging?

What we didn’t examine in our 2018 study was the views of research contract managers on the future impact of AI or artificial intelligence on the research contracts functions of universities – a service right at the nexus of higher education and legal services delivery. Ultimately the question is can legal tech make a difference for research contracts functions in UK universities? We’re starting to think that the answer is (potentially) yes. Recently, we’ve been talking to a US legal tech firm, LegalSifter, about their work with universities in the US piloting legal tech in university environments. LegalSifter’s CEO, suggests that “Sponsored research functions will benefit from this technology.” Over the coming months, we’ll be working with LegalSifter and TLT, their Combined Intelligence Partner law firm in the UK to explore how contracts teams leverage this technology in Great Britain.   

“Clients tend to think they will use the product on the simplest agreements, but the reality is it’s more helpful the more complicated the agreement is.” James Touzel, partner, TLT

So, who will be the early adopters within research contract management in the UK
Well, one Russell Group university in the UK, the University of Southampton, is already working with LegalSifter, and in the US they’re piloting their technology with Penn State University. But like the adoption of recent technologies supporting whole-life research management, technology is only part of the solution. Leadership to instigate change, to pilot and adopt new approaches, and implement the process and skills changes needed by teams will be a major part of any implementation plans.    

And without a strong business case to demonstrate long term value from these technologies change will be slow coming.
So, what next? Well in the first instance, we’re interested in identifying a small group of experts from universities to consider the opportunities and challenges in more detail through a future webinar. Interested? Sign up using the form here, and we can take it from there.