Can legal tech make a difference for research contracts functions in UK universities?

By Sophie Jennings 12/09/2019

Back in June we released a blog post on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for research contracts management.  This generated a lot of interest and led to Research Consulting chairing a webinar looking at this in more detail.  Nearly 80 participants registered and you can view the webinar and software demonstration recording here.

The first UK University AI pilot in research contracts management

The webinar featured contributions from US legal tech firm Legal Sifter, represented by CEO Kevin Miller, and its UK partner – TLT – represented by James Touzel.  A unique and practical insight was provided by Letitia Baldock, Director of Legal Services at the University of Southampton, whom we believe are the first UK university to pilot AI-based legal tech in research contracts management.

The webinar evidenced more clearly than we expected the growing evidence of the benefits of AI technology and how currently available systems have the potential to assist research contracts teams, enhancing their work through time, quality and consistency improvements.

The fast-evolving market for legal tech

Kevin outlined the current landscape of AI products as part of an exploding legal tech sector. Since 2017, legal tech companies worldwide have been growing monthly and AI is the highest growth area in 2019, significantly growing in the United States.

Current adoption of AI in the UK legal sector is relatively lower, although a consistent need for improved efficiency is evident according to James, for which AI can provide the solution.

Whilst AI is being used in various ways, including due diligence and billing management, contract management and review is the most “impactful way that AI is playing out in the marketplace”. As we found in our 2018 study, this is the area where university research contracts teams deal with high volumes, complexity and resource challenges.

Real opportunities for improving contract review

The main challenges identified within research contracts management are reading, negotiating and keeping track of contracts. AI proves extremely beneficial in overcoming these challenges. Kevin explained how AI tackles complex documents “faster, cheaper and with less risk” and is therefore “the most practical example of AI in the university space”.

The webinar featured a demonstration of the software and how it works alongside the contracts officer to review agreements and identifies parts of the agreement to address focus on.

During the webinar, the potential for improved efficiency of up to 70% was discussed, dependent on document complexity and user experience.

The University of Southampton’s AI pilot evidences practical increased efficiency, with an improved turnaround time for completing NDAs from 30 to just 10 days. As Letitia stated, AI’s “ability to speed up the review [process] alone is phenomenal”. Further, a TLT project that was replicated using AI showed a 30% improvement in speed of completion.

The webinar also heard how the software can improve quality and consistency. James noted that AI is “improving how contract work is done, not just enabling it to be done more quickly”. The practical example provided by the University of Southampton showed this, with AI enabling high standards to be adhered to by staff who are not legally trained, which is the case for three-quarters of staff in university research contracts teams. This also means work can be delegated and consequently free up time for legal services teams – the webinar heard examples of this in practice.

Addressing the question of implementing new systems

One of the questions from participants was the difficulty of implementing the software and training needed to realise the initial benefits. 

Configuration of AI technology is relatively easy according to Letitia, taking no more than a couple of hours to configure and start using. Whilst AI has only been implemented for low-risk, NDA contracts at the University of Southampton, Letitia was confident that taking the next steps in implementation would remain unproblematic.

From the case study we looked at, the webinar discussed how the software includes the ability to set bespoke standards for organisations, and tailor advice reflecting specific country laws.

The brink of a transformative change?

It appears the University of Southampton’s pilot is heading in a transformative direction, having used AI for six months and seeing easy adaptation by staff and growing trust in the technology.  This example, and evidence from Legal Sifter and TLT, appears to show the answer to the initial question is yes, legal tech can – and has begun to – make a difference for research contracts functions in the UK.

Adoption has the potential to fundamentally change and improve the behaviour, culture and processes of research contracts management. Although, Kevin made it clear that strong leadership is a necessity for successful adoption and implementation.

If your organisation is interested in becoming an early UK adopter and leader of AI, register your interest by participating in this short survey, allowing us to contact you about future events or opportunities regarding AI. Research Consulting are particularly interested in the potential for a collaborative UK AI pilot.

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