The legal industry has reached a tipping point. It's more complex and competitive today than ever before and is only set to become more so with the continued evolution of business models, pricing structures and rapidly evolving client expectations. Very soon there will be a clear distinction between firms that are prepared for the future and those that will be left behind. 

We’ve been speaking a lot about SmartLaw lately - the combination of firm culture, client focus and the intelligent use of technology - as the framework for carrying firms successfully into the future.

Firms face increased pressure to become modern, more technologically advanced and more efficient. It’s a huge change in mindset from the traditional attitude of "I've been doing it like this for 20 years and it’ll take as long as it takes” which is now outmoded but still too common.

To stay competitive, firms need to optimise existing processes to make them much more efficient and create new legal products and services that make full use of the latest technology and drive innovative solutions specific to the needs of clients.

Firms have only begun to focus on this fairly recently and it has led to a growing need for a facilitator who can identify new opportunities to improve existing ways of working and deliver innovative new client solutions, marrying legal knowledge with technological expertise.

That role is the legal engineer.

Who is the legal engineer?

An idea first raised by Richard Susskind in his book The End of Lawyers?, where he predicts the need for a new role in law firms, combining legal knowledge with technological expertise, which he names the legal knowledge engineer.

This role is the interface between legal experts and technology experts - they get both sides of the equation. There are typically two routes into this role: from the legal side or from the tech side.

Sometimes legal engineers are technologists who become familiar with legal processes, having developed their legal knowledge after years of working in technology roles in law firms. They gain that knowledge of legal processes and services over time and can then form a core part of legal process innovation teams, solving legal problems with technology and process solutions.

Other times, legal engineers can be lawyers (or ex-lawyers) who are technologically adept and see the opportunity to improve legal processes with the intelligent use of technology, so they move from a fee earning role to an innovation role.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter which side of the equation legal engineers come from. The important thing is that they have a deep understanding of both technology and legal practice and an appetite to drive innovation, efficiency, process improvement and client engagement.

What does the legal engineer do?

The legal engineer understands the pain points and bottlenecks that the firm faces and can come up with creative ways to resolve them. They often have a background in business process management or legal project management, as legal engineering ties in closely with continuous improvement and project management methodologies that many firms have been trying to adopt for some time.

Legal engineers use their legal knowledge and combine that with technological know-how and project management experience to optimise existing products, services and processes but also to create new solutions to specific problems faced by clients, using a combination of technology and tools.

Rather than building systems from scratch, legal engineers and their innovation teams need access to a technology toolkit that’s already available so they can be agile and responsive to the firm's and its clients' needs, weaving platforms together to do new and interesting things.

Coalitions of technology like the HighQ - RAVN - Neota Logic trio that we demonstrated at our London forum is a great example of this, where three flexible platforms connect together to create intelligent business processes and solve time consuming problems.

The key thing to remember here is that technology itself is not the differentiator. It’s about how you apply it. That’s why legal engineers are so important. They have the creativity to come up with technological solutions to very specific problems, and this is where the competitive advantage comes in.

I often say that everyone fundamentally has access to the same technology, for example Microsoft Word, but it’s what you write in the Word document that differentiates you, not the fact that it’s written in Word.

Where can firms find legal engineers?

Technology is important but you need the right people who can leverage it inside your organisation. That’s why the legal engineer is such an important role.

However, the role is still pretty specialised and new. There isn’t a large pool of experienced legal engineers to choose from, so the best option for firms might be to grow them internally.

Look for people from IT teams who show an interest in innovation, are creative and can think outside the box and then embed them deeply in the legal practice so they can see the inefficiencies and problems that need to be solved first hand. Or, find lawyers who are tech savvy and interested in transforming the way lawyers work and how legal services are delivered and move them into a role where they can experiment with applying technology to solve business problems.

Legal engineers should be part of your innovation team (you do have an innovation team don't you?) who are purely focussed on improving processes and delivering solutions for the firm and its clients.

The rise of the legal engineer

The role of the legal engineer is more important than ever and whilst it does exist in some firms, I expect we will start to see it spring up in many more soon. Firms have got to be able to leverage technology, adapt to the changing demands of their clients and pressure from their competitors.

The legal engineers and technologists could be one of the key groups of people that make or break a firm in the near future. If you have the skills and experience to be a legal engineer, it could be a very exciting time to help transform your firm and get it set for the future.