Mention the word “engineer,” and (of the staggering number of variations possible) most people are likely to think of mechanical, civil, electrical, or even computer engineers. Conversely, when thinking about “law”, the areas that first come to mind would be in the likes of trade, civil, patent, copyright, or contract law. Much like oil and vinegar in a vinaigrette, law and engineer does not really seem to mix well, but, when combined properly and used accordingly, can be the perfect accompaniment to a firm.
Arising from the fact that technological innovation in business has been outpacing technological innovation in law firms, a legal engineer, as you may have already guessed, is the product of an attempt to bridge the gap often found between legal expertise and tech expertise. In applicable terms, a legal engineer uses their legal and technological knowledge to develop new ways or improve existing ways of delivering solutions to clients, via means such as new legal software, digital business models, or workflow implementation to deal with existing bottlenecks.
Looking at the components of our term, legal comes to us from the Latin legalis, meaning ‘pertaining to the law’, and can first be found around 1484 in Johannis de Caritate’s translation of the Secreta Secretorum (The Secret of Secrets), where he translates: “the strength called legal… is sown in originals.” Originally defined as someone who designs or builds military engines, engineer, coming from the Old French engigneor and the Late Latin ingeniare, meaning ‘to construct or devise’, appeared in our modern context around 1500 in the story of St. Katherine which can be found in Carl Horstmann’s 1881 work, Altenglische Legenden neue Folge (Old English Legends, New Episode), where it was recorded that: “In his court was a false traitor, that was a great engineer…”
Specific to our term, the idea of it was first conceptualized in Richard Suskind’s 2008 book, the end of Lawyers?, predicting a new role in law firms which could combine legal and technical knowledge, terming it the “legal knowledge engineer”. However, the first actual usage appeared as a comment by David Johnston of a blog post by Stephen Mayson in October, 2012, stating: “The top of the ‘legal engineer’ pyramid is already considerably more rewarding than the bottom of the practice certificate one and frankly has been for over a decade already.”
In 2017, a UK law firm has applied to trademark the term “legal engineer” in relation to areas such as artificial intelligence and data processing services when used for legal processes. And while the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has accepted the bid to a limited extent (printed matter and clothing), legal engineer is a term free for anyone to use.
As the demand for and intricacies of full legal compliance become even more complex and technological innovation continues to drive businesses, the need of someone who can use these seemingly divergent skills in order to understand the needs of clients and build solutions to meet those needs has never been greater, both for the businesses needing solution as well as for the law firms looking for a competitive edge.