A Legal Knowledge Engineer, or LKE, is a support role in the legal industry. The role is positioned between lawyers and developers, and is responsible for facilitating the development of legal tech tools.
The term was coined by Richard Susskind in his book The End of Lawyers? In 2008, and has been adopted by the legal industry to an extent. More and more commonly, the industry is dropping the ‘legal’ and just opting for Knowledge Engineer – but I’m a millennial and have been doing this since before it was cool, so I’m keeping the ‘Legal’.
What does a Legal Knowledge Engineer actually do?
The role sits between lawyers and developers to design ways of using new technology to assist lawyers. In that respect, at least, Susskind’s proposition of the LKE has proven accurate.
As the interface between lawyers and developers, we have to have a firm grounding in legal principles, and a concept of practice helps – we are, after all, designing tools for use in practice, so we need to understand our user’s needs. We tend to work across practice areas, collaborating closely with lawyers to understand their issues to make sure we are actually solving a problem.
But working with the lawyers in only part of the job. Once we’ve understood the legal principles at play, we have to translate that into a format that the developers can work with. LKEs are not necessarily coders, but we do need to understand the technical aspect – to understand the needs, capacities and language of developers, which is as specialised a version of the English language as that needed to talk to the lawyers.
We are also Project managers and Business Analysts. As the interface between lawyers and developers, the LKE is the natural project owner, responsible for driving the project forward, ensuring quality and managing the cross-functional engagement. This practicality is often overlooked in the furore around bringing legal and tech together, but it a necessary skill for a successful LKE.
As tech becomes more agile, Business Analysts are being brought in to understand the business needs, assess the business impact of a project, and communicating with stake holders. There are a whole lot of parallels between BAs and LKEs, and very similar base skill let, at least in terms of soft skills.
As the legal industry begins to engage proactively with technology, the need for translators to bridge the gap between the two industries is likely to remain strong. As we get more ambitious with the technology that we can bring to bear on these problems, the role of the LKE to facilitate collaboration between the legal and the technical experts, not just linguistically but also in terms of working practices and ways of thinking, will become more and more necessary.
Therefore, the role of the Legal Knowledge Engineer seems set to expand, specialise and organise, with increasing numbers earning their stripes managing the document automation tools that are the foundation of our efforts, before moving into the more nebulous and experimental tools yet to be imagined.