The (relatively-new) advent of legal engineering

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Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Tech plays an important role in the practice of law. In litigation, especially, it is standard practice to use software and/or the web to research cases, to review documents, and to maintain case calendars. But what specific value can a programmer add to a legal team? There is a somewhat new, but growing profession called legal engineering that focuses on the intersection of law and technology. At core, legal engineers are individuals who design and create solutions to make lawyers’ jobs easier. According to Monax.io, “[l]egal engineering is the combination of legal design and software engineering.” Wavelength defines a legal engineer as “a person that sits at the interface of technology, law and data, and who is trained and skilled in the construction of designed legal solutions.”

Legal engineers solve diverse problems. Two major areas of innovation are e-discovery and “smart contracts”. E-discovery is the practice of using software to conduct the discovery process, most often associated with litigation. It has become standard practice, especially for larger cases. In e-discovery, lawyers are can be faced with tens of thousands of documents for a case. Each document needs to be reviewed for responsiveness and attorney-client privilege. Several platforms already exist to facilitate document review such as Concordance, Relativity, and Intella Connect. Law firms and in-house legal departments, however, often look for ways to add efficiency and reduce costs for their clients. This is where legal engineering comes in. It’s their job to create solutions that can help a legal team better organize and review documents. An example of one such solution is technology-assisted review or TAR. TAR takes advantage of machine learning to “teach” the software which documents are responsive based upon a “learning set” tagged by an attorney experienced with the issues of the case. Smart contracts, rather than relying on machine learning, are based on forms that are designed to take certain inputs and then match those inputs to populate contract templates.

Legal engineers also improve legal design, which is the process of making legal processes and technologies more accessible and user-friendly. Wavelength provides the example of applying legal design to a contract: A legal engineer may: “re-write [the contract] in plain language, remove jargon, include helpful summaries, and add visualisations of information, diagrams, icons, timelines, and pictures. Taking these steps “helps to make the contract engaging, visual and easier to understand.” For e-discovery as well, better legal design principles in document review software not only make work more pleasant but can smooth out a steep learning curve — crucial for when time is of the essence for completing a project.

Swift advances in technology may cause concern among lawyers and paraprofessionals that “machines are coming for our jobs.” That fear is unfounded. At this point, there is still a need for an experienced attorney to review the contract template provided by the software program to make sure it matches the client’s needs. After all, what if there was a mistake in the input or there was a need to negotiate terms with a counter-party? The field of legal engineering (and specifically the increasing use of artificial intelligence) is not a replacement for the tasks that lawyers are called upon to complete but it helps to move the ball forward and save time.

As Mary Schlaphoff wrote for Thomson Reuters:

Lawyers exist because of nuance and disagreement. Fine points related to language (even punctuation) can mean the difference between a desired outcome and its opposite. The unpredictable human elements of the law — judges, clients, witnesses, juries — along with its constantly changing nature and the unique fact patterns of each individual case all combine to mean that legal work will remain a human business.

So, in other words, no need to worry about the field of law being completely taken over by technology. At least not yet.

The answer varies. Many legal engineers work in law firms or corporate legal departments, often within specialized groups like IT or litigation support. There are, however, entire firms that have popped up focused on providing legal engineering services under a consulting model. In addition to the UK-based Wavelength, Immuta is such a firm working extensively on data governance within legal groups. Lawgeex is another. There are also groups of legal engineers in academia such as Stanford’s CodeX group.

What types of people become legal engineers? Most people who enter the profession have some tie to law. A lot of them are lawyers, who, understanding the specific challenges facing the legal profession, have transitioned over to a programming role to employ their technical skills in addressing those challenges. Others have a purely technical background and have specialized in serving legal clients. The specific focus they have will depend on their background. For example, someone with a UX/UI skillset will probably be well-suited to focus on legal design. On the other hand, a developer with full-stack or backend skills might want to specialize in workflow technologies and algorithms. One characteristic they all have in common is the desire to bridge the gap between legal expertise and technology to serve clients.

Web developer and lawyer

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