By Jamie Hwang
Ken Adams has brought his contract expertise to a Pittsburgh artificial intelligence startup.
The transactional lawyer stopped practicing law “the regular way,” as he puts it, in 2006 and devoted himself full time to his interest in contract language. After constant exploration on the topic, the 57-year-old 2009 ABA Journal Legal Rebel came up with guidelines for clear and concise contract language, outlined in his book, A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. Since 2004, he has written four editions of the book, and each has sold more than the previous one.
In addition to doing seminars, blogging, consulting and baking carrot cakes, Adams was in sporadic contact with LegalSifter CEO Kevin Miller until April, when Miller asked whether Adams could get involved with the work in a more official way. So Adams joined forces with the company as an adviser.
“LegalSifter is an artificial intelligence technology. But when you look at what that means, it involves some basic hard work in terms of devising software that looks for particular issues. You have to instruct the technology in what to look for in terms of keywords and phrases,” Adams says.
“For example, you choose an issue you want to solve or to look at and decide how that issue is manifested in contracts. Then you give the software instructions. So one of my jobs is to consider the issues that have been designated, decide the various ways they’re expressed in contracts, and provide those clues to those people who are going to be instructing the software.”
Adams is also involved with devising the help text that’s provided to users, which is in-context advice accessible by clients. According to Adams, LegalSifter has two main functions: reviewing the other side’s contract drafts, and creating contract templates without having to “endlessly reinvent the wheel.”
“The way things currently work: Each company is responsible for creating its own templates, and they ask their in-house staff to do that,” he says. “They’re skilled at handling their transactions, but they’re not necessarily skilled at contract drafting, at creating templates.”
Adams says LegalSifter is a system built with human expertise to address the fact that many customers are doing the same tasks when dealing with contracts. It’s a system that will excel at flagging issues that keep coming up, and he thinks the technology will be sophisticated enough to flag the issues for any one user.
“The idea is to provide some help. LegalSifter looks at it as someone looking over your shoulder, an extra set of eyes that can flag provisions, alert you to them and alert you to the absence of them,” he says. “The help text will give you some basic guidance. LegalSifter clients can customize what is looked for.”
Adams is wary of AI software that doesn’t clarify whose expertise is being used to program the software. But he thinks combining the AI software and professional expertise will help reduce the risk of oversight that happens routinely when handling a high volume of transactional work.
“The machines aren’t going to save us,” he says. “It’s a matter of combining expertise with the software, making sure that the software acts as vehicle for scaling up and making more accessible my expertise and the expertise of other contracts experts that LegalSifters is working with.”
Adams says the transition to LegalSifter has been an adjustment, going from working on his own time for almost 20 years to working with the LegalSifter team members at a fast startup pace. And working with LegalSifter also means more work than he’s used to.
“But I’m delighted to be going through the process of shifting gears because it’s a sign that now I’m finally involved in the process of building products that will make my expertise and the expertise of other experts more accessible,” he says.
Adams’ ultimate goal is to make his expertise on contracts more accessible to more people. Looking forward, he plans to create a library of automated templates that is broadly accessible, so any company can take advantage of the library to create its own template for any kind of contract.
“They’ll know it’ll be high-quality and tailored to their needs,” he says. “The result is you end up with a starting point for your own template that is vastly of higher quality than you could probably achieve just by creating it with your internal staff. And you do it at a tiny fraction of the cost involved in building it entirely yourself.”
While the creation of his library is an ongoing goal, he thinks his new role with LegalSifter is a step on his path to sharing his expertise with more people.
“We’re approaching a tipping point,” he says. “I’m cautious about saying that because expecting change in the legal profession requires a long waiting period. But the fact that I’m involved in an initiative like LegalSifter is a very tangible indication that we’re getting more effective in terms of how to handle contracts.”
In this podcast, Adams speaks with the ABA Journal’s Jason Tashea about his work.
Ken Adams is and adviser to LegalSifter and the author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. Adams has taught contract drafting as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University School of Law and Notre Dame Law School and as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1989, Adams practiced corporate law in New York and Geneva. He was named a ABA Journal Legal Rebel in 2009. He is also the author of the Adams on Contract Drafting blog, which was named to the ABA Journal’s Blawg Hall of Fame in 2015.