A new star is rising quickly in legal innovation: the legal engineer.
This new role will be essential to the survival of law firms as the legal market becomes increasingly competitive.
Stuart Barr recently wrote a blog post about the rise of the legal engineer. In his post, Stuart explained why legal engineers are so important for the future of law, and what role they should play in the law firm.
I also spoke about the role of the legal engineer at Janders Dean Horizons in Sydney last month, in my talk "Working smarter and harder: Surviving the legal apocalypse".
In my talk, I spoke about the tangible roles that legal engineers play within firms, and how to position them and support them within the firm. This post is a summary of what I spoke about at Janders Dean, plus a little bit more!
The three faces of the legal engineer
At its core, the legal engineer role is a hybrid between a lawyer and a technologist - but there’s a lot more to it than this.
The legal face
Legal engineers will have a broad resume with a wide set of skills, a lot of experience, and the ability to wear three faces: legal, client and technology.
The clue’s in the name: legal engineers need be knowledgeable about the law. They must be able to understand the way law firms operate, and should have a deep knowledge of business practice.
They have to talk the legal language, intimately understanding the sensitive nature of what lawyers do. They must understand the granular level of engagement the partners and lawyers are working on, appreciate that sometimes there are good reasons for processes remaining unchanged.
However, they must also not be afraid to challenge the status quo and bring fresh ideas to the table - this is, after all, the essence of what they are trying to achieve in their role.
Tip #1 - Legal engineers often graduate with a law degree!
The client face
A core part of a legal engineer’s role is to get in front of clients, understand their needs, and come up with solutions to meet those needs.
A legal engineer must have the communication and interpersonal skills that allow partners to feel comfortable inviting them to client meetings so they can interface, interact and ultimately contribute.
No longer is it the case that law firms should hide so-called “non-lawyers” from clients. In fact, clients are happy to have technically minded people in on these conversations, because in many cases, they understand that technology will play a crucial role in how the service is going to ultimately be delivered.
Lawyers are smart but they don’t know every technical detail about the service that is being built for the client. You wouldn’t expect a florist to set your broken leg, so why would you expect a lawyer to talk you through a new API?
They don't just attend meetings, however - take that one step further and put them into the client’s environment from an R&D perspective. A legal engineer might spend half a day with the client, or work from the client site for an entire week.
The purpose of having this person spend time on-site can vary. Perhaps its to learn a specific system or process that can only be experienced from within the organisation, or to further develop the relationships and form new ones, or perhaps its something much less tangible such as spending time to understand the "culture" of the organisation.
Whatever your reason asking your client if you can perform this exercise can either be met with a yes or no answer, and in both outcomes, it certainly doesn't hurt to ask!
Tip #2 - Time on-site for the sake of time on-site can potentially lead to confusion and frustration. You need to have clear objectives and communicate these with all parties before "jumping into bed" with your client.
The tech face
Legal engineers need to have a deep knowledge of the technical landscape.
They should understand the toolkit that the law firm has at its disposal, what the key systems both are and are not cable of performing and also how these systems can or can't integrate.
They should also have the ability and remit to look at technology outside of and not already in use by the firm.
They do not necessarily need to have depth of technical knowledge as someone in your IT team, but they must be someone you could confidently converse with these technical individuals.
They don’t need to understand how to write to an API, but they do need to understand why an API is important.
Tip #3 - Hire somebody who only sees solutions to problems, and not the other way around! And remember, the wheel has already been invented, you just need to decide how it's going to look.
Supporting the legal engineer within the firm
Legal engineers need to have an exceptional resume: they have to be great communicators, great listeners, great problem solvers, and great solution sellers.
Once you’ve found the person with the right skills for this role, it’s important to support them and position them within the firm in a way that lets them be most effective and gives them backing by leadership and management.
This role is essentially a drifter - they must be able to move around teams and projects, absorbing information and coming up with innovative ideas. They are almost a visionary.
This person needs to sit across lots of projects, lots of conversations, they need to be available for partners to call in or to meet with clients.
They don’t necessarily have to get involved with executing projects - they sit above this process. If legal engineers are bogged down in the day-to-day grind, they won’t have time to get involved in conversations because they’ll be too busy writing business cases.
Sometimes this is conceptual. These projects aren’t always going to be successful - they’re not always going to be feasible or get off the ground beyond proof of concept.
What’s key to all of this is that the legal engineer isn’t looked at as a perfectionist, they are involved in concepts - but in essence they have to be seen as a person that’s going to try and do things better and different.
Tip #4 - Perfection isn't what matters. In fact, it's the very thing that can destroy you if you let it!
Building the innovation team
The ideal position for a legal engineer is within an innovation team, supported by team members who can execute upon the ideas that the legal engineer devises. Not all firms have that structure already available, so they may need to create an innovation team especially.
It’s a new role for law firms, so they need to find a new way to allow this person to remain constantly creative and not get bogged down in the processes that law firms like to implement. The innovation team is the perfect way to do this.
It may seem like investing in a legal engineer and the supporting innovation team is only possible or necessary for big law firms. Actually, what I’ve found is that mid-tier firms are sometimes better placed for a legal engineer.
Smaller firms are a little more agile, a little less process heavy, and they can make things happen a bit quicker, they can afford to take chances and they are in an enviable position to learn from the mistakes of their "big brother".
Make the case for the legal engineer in your firm
The legal engineer should be the first port of call for lawyers who need to improve processes for a client or create a new solution for clients.
If you can build that brand for this person, the lawyers are going to think first about bringing the legal engineer into client meetings when the client is thinking about going elsewhere for legal services.
There’s perceived value in having this person involved in the meetings if they’re seen as a person who’s going to push the boundaries beyond what’s boring and normal, here’s somebody that can come up with something new and innovative.
Tip #5 - Celebrate the successes and learn from the failures. But never fail to learn.