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The most disastrous thing

This post was first published on our sister site (www.edgeoflaw.com) in March 2018. We’re republishing it here because the topic of “Should lawyers code?” keeps resurfacing.

It seems the “lawyers must code” debate rumbles on. So, here’s my twopenn’orth on it.

First, some disclosure – I am not a lawyer, but have spent most of the past decade working for law firms. I have been a system developer, mainly as a systems analyst, but I was also trained, and have worked, as a programmer (COBOL, FORTRAN, Pascal, C, Basic, Transact, Python) in a variety of industries (financial services, transportation, government, and accountancy), and I have a lifelong interest in systems development as a problem-solving activity.

Which brings me on to my first point – the word “coding”. The term has re-emerged in the last few years as shorthand for “programming for beginners”, but it runs the risk of selling the whole development process short. There’s a lot more to developing a piece of software than “coding”, and usually the game is won or lost long before you get to the programming…

What are the arguments for lawyers having to learn to code? From my review of more than two years’ worth of articles on this topic, they can be summarised as:

  1. Technology is changing the law; if we don’t understand the technology we won’t be any good as lawyers any more – coding will help us understand the technology.
  2. A more extreme viewpoint – coding and the practice of law (e.g. drafting a contract) are basically the same logic-driven disciplines – “Law Is Code”.
  3. And even more extreme than that – legal knowledge (and systems) will become computable in the same way other knowledge has done – so we’ll have to be coders…..
  4. It will teach you to think more logically.
  5. It will prepare you for a world dominated by computers.
  6. It has a more immediate end result than normal legal work.
  7. It’s a new skill.
  8. It’s fun.

My view? 4 – 8 are all true (5 & 6 maybe less so), but not reasons for lawyers to have to learn how to code. 1 – 3 are more interesting, but I don’t believe that:

  • Being able to code is a prerequisite for understanding the application of a technology to law.
  • Computer programming and (say) contract drafting are so similar that being competent in the first is a prerequisite for competence in the second
  • Every lawyer need to be able to code in order for us to make legal knowledge computable (although I do accept that every lawyer should understand the implications of this potential direction).
  • Nevertheless, the “for” school has some eminent champions, including Linklaters who ran a very successful pilot scheme at the firm (I met a Linklaters lawyer recently who raved about it) and Joshua Browder, the creator of the DoNotPay robot lawyer, who has said that all law students should learn to code, to improve the quality of legal systems by remaining integral to their development.

More generally, both the current and former CEOs of Apple have said that everyone should learn to code. Here’s what Steve Jobs said in 1995:

“Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer, should learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think. It’s like going to law school. I don’t think anybody should be a lawyer, but going to law school can actually be useful because it teaches you how to think in a certain way….I view computer science as a liberal art.”

There are a couple of things worth saying about this. One is that Steve Jobs didn’t really follow his own advice. Here’s what his co-founder Steve Wozniak said about Jobs:

“Steve didn’t ever code. He wasn’t an engineer and he didn’t do any original design, but he was technical enough to alter and change and add to other designs.”

The second is that a decade earlier Jobs said something much more in tune with the “no need to code” camp:

“Most people have no concept of how an automatic transmission works, yet they know how to drive a car. You don’t have to study physics to understand the laws of motion to drive a car. You don’t have to understand any of this stuff to use Macintosh.”

This is pretty much how I see it. I think we can agree that lawyers who do or can code might have something more to offer the development of legal systems and applications, but it’s hard to see why that means all lawyers need to learn to code, especially when there are so many professional developers and programmers ready and able to help.

I do believe that knowing one computer language is better than knowing none (mind you, I feel the same way about knowing Latin and Greek). But if lawyers are going to go – professionally – down this route, they need to be aware of the commitment they are implicitly making to remain current and relevant, and to acquire deeper and more coherent knowledge of “coding”. As the eminent American computer scientist Alan Kay has said:

“Probably the most disastrous thing you can ever learn is your first programming language, even if it’s a good programming language.”

What he is alluding to is the fact that each programming language you learn presumes a way of thinking and problem solving and then shapes you to it. So, really, you need to learn multiple languages in order to appreciate one language……And while you’re doing this, your skills are always in danger of going out of date, as languages change, and as no-code/low-code solutions become more prevalent.

But I encourage all lawyers who fancy it to give it a go. I just don’t think it will be a truly differentiating skill within a law firm (either today’s or tomorrow’s). It might lead to a new career, might be a new hobby, and might just make you a tad more appreciative of (and keen to work with) those who do this for a living.

I do think, though, that investment in new skills other than coding is more likely to pay back. These skills include:

  • Taking the role of the informed and intelligent user of software in its definition, design and implementation– this will be even more critical for AI applications.
  • Innovation, including legal product development (skills such as design thinking).
  • Legal business analysis (including skills such as systems thinking)..
  • Change management (making change effective and efficient in your organisation).
  • Work design.

If you are going to stay the coding route, one final thought from Alan Kay:

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

Now there’s a hobby…

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Photo credits: documents icon by Richard Copley

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