Gender neutrality: Linklaters eliminates contract bias with Microsoft Azure Cognitive Search 

Linklaters has largely eliminated gender bias from its contracts using Microsoft Azure Cognitive Search, in what global head of practice innovation Greg Baker and senior software development and testing manager Su Clarke tell us is a cost-effective way to amend precise terms in large swathes of documents.  

The magic circle firm first used Microsoft’s cloud search service to amend its contracts after Brexit, but quickly realised the potential for other word searches, including those relating to gender. 

Speaking to Legal IT Insider, Clarke and Baker said that post-Brexit, they initially looked at using one of the firm’s machine learning-based document extraction tools, however Baker said: “This would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut because we already had a list of phrases and words that we needed to look for and not concepts, which is what those legal technology tools are designed for.” 

The gender-neutral drafting work was first done a year ago, and again more recently with the succession of King Charles to change ‘Her Majesty’ to ‘His Majesty.’  

Clarke told Legal IT Insider: “I’m loathed to call what we created a tool because it has no user interface. But we loaded the information from our document management system into Azure Blob Storage and then ran a cognitive search to loop through and find the terms we were looking for, then exported that information back out to an Excel file.” 

She adds: “We did it first for Brexit, which was met with plenty of ‘ooohs and aaahhhs’ and we have run it on two or three other occasions, with the potential for more to come.” 

While the team has deliberately not created a user interface and lawyers don’t interact with the technology, Clarke says she and her team are considering whether there is a value to creating a self-serve tool for lawyers.  

Clarke says that Azure Blob Storage is comparatively cheap to use, commenting: “We were looking to do something that wouldn’t break the bank and that we could spin up quickly.” 

While firms may regard the exercise of making their contracts gender neutral an expensive one, Baker adds: “The cost in the Azure cloud is only at the point that you’re using it. There is a resource cost to getting it up and running, but if someone provides us with the terms and the list of documents to be searched through, it’s not a huge effort from the tech side.” 

With its gender search, Linklaters looked for defined terms such as ‘gentleman’ and ‘sir’ across 30,000 documents, with the results fed back to its knowledge team.  

Inevitably it takes time to make changes flagged by Excel, however Clarke says that for Brexit they estimated it would take 2,500 hours of review to find the terms, but using Azure it was reduced to a week. 

The team has questioned whether they can automate the process of updating the words in the contracts, however Clarke said: “It’s important for the lawyer to be able to check that the substitute is correct. If it says sir, for example, there might be a valid reason why that word is in there. If the tool makes generic changes, we could make find and replace errors.” 

Baker adds: “Given the importance of our precedents and contracts, I would always want a human in the loop.” 

Clarke anticipates that the team will continue to use Microsoft Azure for searches when it comes to the likes of regulatory changes and ESG issues, commenting: “There will always be a need to bulk review documents using terms and not concepts.” 

She adds: “Often when we’re asked to develop things we come up with a huge idea but being able to use the engine without all the fancy stuff means we are able to get something up and running relatively quickly.” 

Sarah Tanswell, senior customer success manager for Azure at Microsoft, told Legal IT Insider: “Firms are often faced with the choice of using something out of the box or pumping in tons of time and money but what Greg and Su have done shows that you can develop at your own pace and decide where you take it from there. Cloud is relatively new to some and sometimes these things can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.”