Practice Engineering for 21st Century Legal Services Firms (Part 3)

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms


The first post in this series on the (now) essential law-degree-not-required professional roles in legal services— knowledge, pricing, process & projects, practice support and legal ops — set the business and operational context. The second post examined what legal services organizations deliver, and how they do it. This final post considers technology and recommends a new, unifying role, the practice engineer.


Technology is, of course, vital to legal services. The foundations of email, document management, accounting and mobility are still often surprisingly difficult to do well and securely, but they should be assumed; they do not add value, they can only subtract it, by failing.

The technologies that do warrant attention are any that can bend the curve of efficiency and quality in the legal services system. Are there technologies that can replace or obviate elements of lawyers’ work? Augment their skills? Improve productivity (output per hour, not hours per year). Reduce errors and risk?

We need not fear robot lawyers driven by artificial intelligence (AI), at least not any time soon. As Andrew Ng, one of the world’s leading AI scientists, wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review, “If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it now or in the near future.” Rather few legal tasks can be done “with less than one second of thought.”

Deciding whether an e-mail is responsive or not in a litigation is one of those few tasks, which explains why electronic discovery is the oldest and most successful application of AI machine learning in law. Recognizing the successors & assigns provision of a contract is another such task, and contract analytics is therefore the most promising new use of machine learning in law.

So then, contract lifecycles are again a subject of innovation, after years of stagnation. Machine learning, logical AI, and old-fashioned smart software design are chipping away at the clumsy and costly processes of precedent finding, drafting automation, quality assurance, negotiation and collaboration, rights and obligations analysis and management, contract discovery and other elements of the lifecycle.

These few examples from the fertile ground of technology innovation around legal services are not meant to be a catalogue. Rather, they are indicators of the systems that engineering could challenge: Which of these tools add value to what aspects of legal service delivery? How can they be integrated with other tools — and with the many unavoidably and admirably human aspects of law?

What Is To Be Done?

As the great engineer Ove Arup said, “engineering problems are under-defined, there are many solutions, good, bad and indifferent. The art is to arrive at a good solution.”

To solve problems of that kind — under-defined engineering problems — so they can deliver outstanding service to increasingly sophisticated clients in a competitive market, law firms are, I submit, mis-organized and sub-optimally structured.

All the activities described above are — in most law firms — divided among a collection of fiefdoms, loosely joined in the hands of a Chief Operating Officer, who is most often a finance expert.

Each fiefdom “sells” its ideas and services in the partnership bazaar.

What a modern law firm needs is a Chief Engineer, with the training, skills, responsibility, and authority to:

  • Map the entity as the single but complex organization it is;
  • Direct the integration of practice functions in accordance with the principles of systems engineering;
  • Manage analysis of the optimum level of vertical integration, practice by practice and matter by matter; and
  • Advance the effective use of effective technology to improve delivery of legal services.

I will speculate that alternative legal services providers, unhindered by tradition and partnerships, get closer to the systems engineering model and to the business organization necessary to achieve it.

Experts agree. The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute conclude their 2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market with a call for change:

“What is ultimately needed… is a broader reimagining of the overall model for legal service delivery, one that includes paraprofessionals, technologists, information specialists, process managers and others — in addition to lawyers — as part of an integrated system for the delivery of legal services. …Such a redesigned approach to legal services — combined with a pricing model based on outcomes (results) rather than inputs (recorded time) — could significantly improve both the competitiveness and profitability of those law firms willing to take these issues seriously.”

For law firms, the evolution of knowledge management, pricing, project management, practice support, and other professional specialties surrounding the practice of law is, and must be, moving toward systems thinking. We all need to study systems engineering.

And when we do become Practice Engineers, in New York State at least, we can have our own special license plates.