Image Source: The Law Society Gazette
Lawyers are, by definition, multi-skilled: they must have a keen knowledge of the law, they should master time management, the power of persuasion, and the art of eloquence. When it comes to tech capabilities, though, their stack is often limited at Microsoft Word.
This paradox has been observed by many, and it is the premise for the ascent of a new breed of legal professionals at the frontiers between law and technology. They were symbolically called legal engineers.
With the advent of technology, remote working, and under the current influx of legal issues, the role of a legal engineer is critical to law firms wanting to adapt to the new circumstances. True, this role is somehow still unexplored, but the past few months lived under the COVID-19 specter show how fast the world can change.
In this article, we’ll analyse the characteristics and job description of a legal engineer as well as some practical advice for organisations in search of the best legal engineers to complete their innovation teams. I will end with a few questions for legal engineers to consider henceforth.
Coined as early as 1989, the idea of legal engineering is not new, but its importance has exponentially grown ever since. Now more than ever, we see how the digital realm eats more and more of our known world. Conclusively, people come across some different, novel, and intricate legal issues that lawyers and legislators alike must now grapple with. These challenges call for a new way of thinking about the intersection of technology and law.
Now, the meaning in this context is straightforward. When presenting legal engineering as a process, Richard Susskind depicted it as “developing legal standards and procedures, and organizing and representing legal knowledge in computer systems”.
“Legal engineers are similar to what other industries would call “solutions architects,” explains Stephen Allen, head of global innovation and digital at Hogan Lovells. “They are people who advise on, develop, and create solutions, and are essential in keeping firms ahead of the curve.”
In principle, a vast majority of legal engineers are either lawyers with a lifelong enthusiasm and adequate understanding of technology or, conversely, software engineers with some basic knowledge of the law. In a Venn diagram, legal engineers would dwell in the area overlapping between lawyers and software engineers. However, they are not required to know how to code.
Diagram created at Meta-Chart
Fiona Boag, a legal application analyst in Osborne Clarke’s IT team, has its own perspective over legal engineering: “I see my job as a translator between two fiefdoms. It is not about seeing an issue in isolation, but being able to contextualise to help broach the gap”. This actually goes to the very core of the matter as a legal engineer must interface between legal and tech professionals for building software capabilities aimed at interpreting, enforcing, or proving compliance with the law.
But a legal engineer’s job goes further than merely designing legal tech software. He or she is also essential for deciding whether or not a legal service can be standardized (legal service as a product) or if, given its specific characteristics, it requires human input. In essence, as CodeX – the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics’ Roland Vogl pointed out, a legal engineer must decide “(h)ow far along can [the firm] take a client in an automated workflow, and at what point does it need to be escalated to a human decision-maker”.
Legal tech and, implicitly, legal engineering, are emerging fields. Among others, this means that there is sufficient leeway for anyone interested in introducing digitalization and process optimization to the legal industry.
Regardless of the differences in interpretation, it is believed that the person exhibiting some combination of the following traits may be a legal engineer:
- While legal training is necessary to understand the processes and the background legal issues, you don’t need to be a qualified lawyer;
- Empathy is a crucial trait for a role that bridges two different worlds. It is, after all, a job for a person that has to talk to technologists and lawyers to help each other understand their pain points;
- A healthy degree of impatience comes a long way- it’s useful to be dissatisfied with the status quo and try to find methods to streamline the legal process;
- Boldness and energy to start experimental programs, test them, and see them through. Tenacity is also required to crunch through the logic and avoid frustration when things deviate from the initial plan;
- Imagination to design tech solutions that could answer pressing problems across the legal industry in an optimum manner;
- Pragmatism to understand that sometimes an issue does not require bleeding-edge technology but rather being creative in recycling tools and data sets already available;
- Inspiration about the extent to which data can be transformed, curated and displayed to help people make decisions;
- Creativity and persuasiveness in providing the underlying context to the software engineers while exposing tech capabilities to the lawyers;
- Curiosity, an inquiring mind to keep searching for the best options to obtain efficiency;
- Passion for tech and a knack for problem-solving that could provide the means for obtaining efficiency;
- A business-oriented approach towards scaling the solution thus created.
Therefore, a legal engineer will unite law and technology by creating viable products while, at the same time, taking into account the business and data analysis aspects of said product. From this perspective, a legal engineer is different from a legal technologist (a role that I analyse in a subsequent post) in the sense that a legal technologist will limit its position to the very delicate task of bridging the gap between law and technology. For that, a legal technologist will surely have enough knowledge of tech development and IT management as well as on law and legal procedures. A legal technologist will be the brain behind computerized legal services.
A legal engineer is that team member that will try to make sure the product is viable, marketable, and provide an optimum return on investment. He or she is a person with a hands-on mentality, a client-centric approach, and strong analytical skills. A legal engineer is a bridge bringing law and tech to a common denominator when it comes to the areas involved. But by and large, “legal engineering in the sense of the legal tech industry is not legal engineering. It’s an application of an IT professional’s perspective on legal services”.
2. Legal engineers and where to find them
Technology makes the headlines nowadays more than ever in human history. But, to culturally integrate it into an organization and leverage it accordingly, an organization must make sure it has the proper subject matter experts. That is precisely where the legal engineer is placed. Intuitively, as a new role, it is relatively specialised as well as unique. As there are few experienced engineers out there, the best option for any organisation is to grow them internally.
Yes, but where to find them within said organisation?
Look for people in IT departments who have a knack for innovation, are bold, creative, and imaginative. Then place them in the midst of legal processes, so they experience first-hand the inefficiencies and problems that require solving. Alternatively, you can seek lawyers or legal practitioners at large that are interested in tech innovation, understand the requirements, and are interested in transforming the way lawyers work and how legal services are delivered.
Basically, legal engineers must be part of the innovation team and be focused on process improvements and solution delivery to both the firm and the clients.
Some legal engineers are developers, data scientists, or even graphic designers who have developed a keen interest in legal processes. More often than not, they are lawyers with technical skills that have decided to automate parts of their daily jobs and turn their services into products.
Being an emerging role, a legal engineer is not confined by precedents or limitations, which gives sufficient leeway to those with a taste for professional freedom. Being so, the recruitment process might prove complicated. While in many firms, trainees are encouraged to learn to code and undertake tech training, truly experienced legal engineers are hard to find. “It is not easy to find people with the mix of legal and tech knowledge,” says Katja Ullrich-North, global head of knowledge management at Hogan Lovells. “What we try to do is find the closest skill set and migrate these into a legal tech role.”
3. Instead of a Conclusion
We surely live unprecedented and yet exciting times. Human imagination can only be matched by its destructive power. But before asking ourselves how will digitalisation and AI infiltrate the job market, we should make sure that workers in the broader sense are upskilled and ready to embrace new roles.
Within the legal industry, the most probable imminent change is the rapid pivoting from law as a service to law as a product. It is for hybrid, novel roles such as legal engineers to undertake the central task of narrowing the gap between legal practitioners and software developers while ensuring the scalability of the resulting products. Before going about paving the future, these pioneers might want to first find answers to some pressing questions such as: What legal process should we digitalise? Should we use existing technologies or create new ones from scratch? How to attenuate the community’s resistance towards this type of solution? Equally important, how to educate the general public into trusting this approach?
In your view, what are the main obstacles blocking legal engineers’ activity and what are the shortcuts around them? Comment and let’s discuss!
Thank you for reading! 😊
 Susskind, R. (2013). Tomorrow’s lawyers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.111
This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire.To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page.