‘Legal engineering’ is fast becoming a prized, and indeed critical, role at the interface between law and technology. It makes legal processes quicker, more efficient and accurate at a fraction of the time, cost and manpower previously required. To many, the idea of a ‘legal engineer’ is still unfamiliar, but the past few weeks of Covid-19 turmoil have shown how quickly the world can change. Only those firms with agile technology capabilities are likely to mitigate the impact of the virus in the coming months.

‘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 recent weeks legal engineers have been using the platforms that Hogan Lovells built to review force majeure clauses in contracts that could be triggered by the global Covid-19 shutdown. Firms that have not developed such technology in recent years are at a clear disadvantage when multiple clients demand immediate support in such a fast-changing environment.  

The burgeoning of what are essentially tech startups within (or affiliated to) law firms, and the scrutiny and self-evaluation that they prompt, show what law firms have learned from competing industries. ‘Law firms have to provide a style of professional service to clients that goes beyond the law,’ says Dan Wright of Osborne Clarke Solutions, the tech arm of Osborne Clarke. ‘The Big Four realised the value of such inputs 20 years ago.’

Developments such as the smart contract – an automated tool that applies templates to new data entries before they are uploaded – used (among other functions) to enable blockchain in the supply chain, demonstrate the kind of technical agility that clients now expect.

Law firms have to provide a style of professional service to clients that goes beyond the law. The Big Four realised the value of such inputs 20 years ago

Dan Wright, Osborne Clarke

 Jumping from lawyer to legal engineer

As legal tech is an emerging field, there is (currently) a fluidity of career path that many find a refreshing change from the rigid milestones of legal practice. Most legal engineers are lawyers with a lifelong enthusiasm for technology – or, occasionally, IT engineers with a knowledge of law – and the curiosity and drive to ask ‘how can I make this better?’ In a Venn diagram the legal engineer would sit in the overlap between lawyers and software engineers.

‘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,’ says Fiona Boag, legal applications analyst in Osborne Clarke’s IT team. Boag worked in personal injury litigation before moving into the management side of law. Many do more than strict ‘legal engineering’, fielding tech-related queries, training lawyers, doing product research or pushing the innovation agenda at management committee meetings, as well as collaborating on transformative projects.

Although law firms are far from the saloons of the wild west, there is a hint of romanticism and frontier spirit about this formative career. ‘People are trapped into certain ways of working that are not sensible,’ says one. ‘I see it as my job to liberate them from rubbish systems.’

Thor Alden, legal innovation manager at global law firm Dechert, worked as an associate in the financial services group for five years before moving across to the firm’s tech team. ‘What is happening in legal tech is genuinely exciting and pioneering,’ he says. ‘It is certainly useful to have been on the other side, to know the intricacies of practice and how lawyers work. But being outside the traditional legal structure has its benefits. The role is varied and also groundbreaking – we are encouraged to try new things even if they don’t work out at first.’

Those in the field also have the advantage of a bird’s eye view across practice areas which is inaccessible to most practitioners, so can adapt a tool used in one discipline for use in another. For example, Dechert’s tech team recently enabled the application of the machine learning contract analysis tool Kira Systems within the entire firm.

The savings in time, cost, manpower and error reduction achievable with tech tools and platforms are a game-changer, both for the legal industry and clients. Dechert and Hogan Lovells have recently developed their own tools to handle the enormous task faced by banks and other financial institutions in adapting to the (as yet undecided) new benchmark that will replace Libor after 2021. Without such tools, clients face a Herculean struggle to review millions of legacy deals and update new ones to take account of Libor transition measures.

‘Being able to turn to the technology team to build in-house tools which address specific client issues, rather than outsourcing to expensive AI vendors, is rare in the legal market, and of real value to clients,’ says Sarah Smith, a structured finance partner at Dechert’s London office.

Empathy and imagination

Wavelength claims to be the world’s first Solicitors Regulation Authority-regulated legal engineering business. It was acquired by Simmons & Simmons last year to enhance its capability to use data science, technology and design on projects. In 2017 one of Wavelength’s founders, former Bird & Bird lawyer Peter Lee, set out his blueprint for the ideal legal engineer, listing empathy, impatience (with the status quo), bravery, imagination, pragmatism (in reutilising or refining existing systems) and imagination as essential qualities. This assessment still stands, but is not exhaustive.

‘You have to be willing to delve deep and take creative risks,’ says Erika Pagano, head of legal innovation and design at Wavelength. ‘It is important to be an active learner.’

Luke Martin-Fuller joined the Nakhoda team at Linklaters as product manager after qualifying into the firm’s dispute resolution team two years ago. He helped to develop ISDA Create, a time-saving online platform used by more than 50 banks to negotiate and execute derivatives documentation, while allowing businesses to capture and process data within the documents.

You have to be willing to delve deep and take creative risks. It is important to be an active learner

Erika Pagano, Wavelength

‘You need the hard skills – the knowledge of how legal process works and the background legal understanding,’ he says. Creativity and persuasiveness are also important in translating between the ‘two worlds’ in order to give the software engineers the context to build the right solution. And it is not always about breaking new ground: ‘Once you have set up a process, you can use it again and again,’ he adds. ‘The goal is to create efficiencies.’

As well as a curious and enquiring mind, passion for tech and a knack for problem solving, a certain amount of tenacity is also required to crunch through the logic and not get frustrated when things do not work out first time around.

Career progression and recruitment

As an emerging role the legal engineer is not confined by precedent, so there is scope to carve out your own career, with the (anecdotal) prospect of the equivalent remuneration to working as a lawyer. As in any nascent field, recruitment is an issue. Although in many firms trainees are encouraged to learn coding and receive some tech training, experienced legal engineers are in short supply. ‘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.’

How law schools are preparing

Dr Anna Donovan is a lecturer in the faculty of laws, University College London and sits on the UK Lawtech Delivery Panel, which aims to identify the barriers to and catalysts for the transformation of the UK legal sector through tech. She previously practised at PwC Legal before moving into academia. From a base of zero, law schools and universities have now started to incorporate legal tech into their syllabuses, preparing students for ‘the legal tech revolution’.

Initiatives such as partnering with major law firms so that students can get hands-on experience and mentoring as legal engineers are planned, while a regular programme of speakers at events raises awareness of the possibilities of legal tech as a career on a par with practice. ‘The legal engineer is not just an adjunct to traditional legal work,’ emphasises Donovan. ‘It is through roles such as these that we offer exceptional client service in a world-class jurisdiction. High-calibre individuals at the very top of their game are required.’

What next for the legal engineer?

This generation of law school students is, according to Donovan, very comfortable with the idea of mobility in their careers and open-minded about the prospect of alternative careers in the law, aside from the established trajectory of practice. Although the novel nature of the legal engineer means that it has yet to be embedded in law firm culture, like legal ops or knowledge management a few years ago, the open possibilities of the role are part of its charm.

‘There is a sense of freedom. You can take ownership of your career – you don’t have to follow a linear and clearly defined pathway,’ says Martin-Fuller. And many in the field would like it to stay this way: exploratory, pioneering, ad hoc. ‘There are risks with jumping into a highly structured regime,’ says Allen. ‘People who do this job tend not to be concerned with titles, methodology and a set career path. Formalising the role could kill the flexibility and creativity that people enjoy.’

Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist