Ulster University’s Legal Innovation Centre: a new initiative opens for business

The UK’s first Legal Innovation Centre, on the model of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford in the US, was officially opened in Belfast on Tuesday night. An audience of over 200 assembled to welcome its opening at Ulster University.  The centre is a collaboration between the Schools of Law and Computing and Intelligent Systems, two of whose senior staff  – respectively Dr Eugene McNamee and Dr Kevin Curran – are its executive directors. The director of the centre itself is Dr Catrina Denvir, once of the Legal Services Commission’s Legal Services Research Centre at a time when legal policy-making in England and Wales valued an independent academic element.

Ulster University is the brash new educational provider on the Belfast block – effortlessly differentiating itself from the venerable image that attaches to its much older and more establishment neighbour – Queen’s.  It is investing over £250m in a new city centre campus that is reviving a once rundown area of the inner city near St Anne’s Cathedral and Belfast’s law centre – whose staff now get access to a previously inconceivable range of upmarket coffee bars (I recommend Established in Hill Street or Clement’s in Royal Avenue). The centre is the result of some smart fundraising and has received the backing of two of the large firms that have offshored departments to Belfast – London-based Allen and Overy and US giant Baker McKenzie. Andrew Bremmer from the former and Jason Marty of the latter reported their hopes for the centre at the meeting. Mr Marty stressed the mutual benefits.  Courses would be available for his staff and  the centre’s remit over for profit and not for profit would be relevant to the mixed work of his firm.

The centre’s capacity to assist with training for the large departments outhoused to Belfast is part of its attraction, both for its funders and students. A six week course on Legal Technology and Innovation started in January running for three hours on Thursday evenings – compatible with working hours. It is designed to:

elaborate on the changing face of the legal profession due to the influence of new technologies, give a grounding in basic concepts and technologies, investigate the opportunities and risks of the changing dynamics of law due to increasingly sophisticated informatic systems, and look to the future face of law as a result of these changes. The course will be designed to foster core practical competence in the areas under study, with a view to encouraging professional specialisation, as well as feeding and directing intellectual interest.

Under consideration are ways of incorporating technology into the university’s degree course and the possibility of developing specific qualifications in legal technology. A module on technology has already been developed for the university’s masters in law.

The centre intends to undertake research. It is about to bulk up its staff with a researcher and by taking on a doctoral student:

A core vision of the Legal Innovation Centre is on the research and development of computational law which is a branch of legal informatics focused on the automation and mechanization of legal analysis. We are also looking into automating information retrieval as it can reduce cost and often outperform manual searches in terms of accuracy …

A current project is that automated fact checking of legal documents using computational intelligence techniques where the aim is to extract and verify each fact in specific legal texts. We have identified that knowledge acquisition rules, based on the linguistic treatment of specific aspects of legal documents will be key to improving the results in this task. Additionally, domain knowledge representation can provide an even broader set of possibilities. This research will create language models for addressing Information Extraction from texts in the legal domain combined with external publicly accessible document silos in order to verify statements. Automatic fact checking of legal documents allows for improvements in legal information retrieval system effectiveness.

The centre’s third strand is the development of collaborative projects, an example of which was demonstrated by a presentation of a visual law project exploring the possibilities of using visual means, by way of posters and animations, to communicate legal information.

The centre should be worth watching. For a start, it seems unlikely to hide its achievements under a bushel. Let us hope so because we could do with feedback on performance in each of its three areas. In research, we need  more work on vigorous evaluation of technology projects. Dr Denvir – trailing degrees from universities British and Australian – has the background to do this. On education, we need more information of how a facility with, and an understanding of, technology can be integrated within legal training at all levels. As Dr Denvir articulates the challenge, ‘We are struggling with the issue of how to integrate training in technology within the law degree. The lawyer of the future will need to have an understanding of how to manage data.’ She believes that  ‘a wide range of careers such as project management, will become more important’ in law firms in addition to straightforward lawyering. In terms of collaborative projects, we again need as much experience as we can get about what works, both in terms of products and processes.

At first glance, the location of this initiative is a surprise. The Law Society of Northern Ireland has only around 2000 members: its Bar is considerably smaller. But, this increases the impact of the jobs brought by the offshoring law firms and emphasises the pressure to respond to their needs. In addition, the small size of the jurisdiction allows easy contact between different institutions and interests – all well represented at the opening launch. In this context, Dr Denvir acknowledges a general need in legal education in which Belfast may be well placed to provide a lead, ‘We have a responsibility to prepare students for a career in a new form. They are likely not to progress through to partnership in the old model. Their advancement path is likely to be rather flatter and different. This may be especially so in Belfast where there is relatively small legal market.’

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