Lawyers and coding

By | February 24, 2018

BBC Micro Computer - Lawyers and CodingI revealed in my recent post on ‘Hack the Past : How the Legal Profession knew nothing about Technology‘ that I taught myself some basic coding on a BBC Micro computer way back in the early 1980s. My need/desire to code since has been non existent although I experienced a little bit of it for fun at a Legal Hackers meet up in Glasgow last year.

My view is: if I need coding done I will hire in an expert to do it. I wouldn’t expect a lawyer to do it. Just like I wouldn’t expect a coder to represent me in a court of law.

I saw this tweet which sums it up nicely and which I can relate to in my crofting law world:-

I hope at the Global Legal Hackathon (taking place this weekend) that real coders are doing the hacking with some input (but not coding) from the lawyers and their clients.

As Jordan Furlong said, in his opening talk to the Ottawa Legal Hackathon last night, it is this collaboration that is important:

You’ve got the entire orchestra coming together and saying “what are we going to play guys? What are we going to pull together tonight and tomorrow and the next day and next week and next year to make this work better?”

We can solve the legal profession’s problems if we work together. If we are building on what everyone brings to the table. We need everyone around the table because we need to learn from each other, we need to teach each other what we need to know.

We need to build something which is greater than the sum of its parts. Something that individually we can’t pull together but if we pull ourselves together in one place and talk and program and write things on these cool white boards then we will actually start making our way towards the solutions that we need.

Looking at the introductory slides by David Terrar for the London Legal Hackathon it looks like teams will be expected to be made up of:-

  • Lawyer
  • Application developer, coder
  • Designer
  • Graphics expert
  • Marketing expert
  • Business Person

So a good mix for the orchestra if indeed teams follow that mix. I hope that the Business Person also takes on the role of client in the team otherwise an important ingredient mentioned by Jordan Furlong may be missing.

The Global Legal Hackathon “expect ideas using technologies like AI, Machine Learning, Chatbots, Blockchain, or the Internet of Things”.

I get that at a Hackathon, where coding is the thing, that is to be expected.

For your average law firm a design thinking day: avoiding building the technology but looking at process and incremental improvements is likely to prove more meaningful, long lasting and successful.

Reactions on LinkedIn:-

There has been a lot of debate in relation to this post on LinkedIn where I asked the question “should lawyers code?” To keep these together with the post itself I have copied the comments here:-

Arlene McDaid: Are you up for some more coding Brian? Philip can take the coding on your mobile session.

Philip Hannay: A BBC micro computer! Hah, come on Brian show your real age. It was an abacus…

Arlene McDaid: You sponsoring Philip?

Abacus Programming for Lawyers

Philip Hannay: Arlene what’s that all about?

Arlene McDaid: Humour 🙂

Brian Inkster: Arlene McDaid I think the little coding that Philip Hannay and I did last year was enough to reafirm to me that I can leave that to the experts.

Brian Inkster: Philip Hannay You will have to get a team of your Legal Engineer™s onto this. They will be well trained in abacus programming by Arlene McDaid and moving onto BBC Basic before you know it.

Brian Inkster: Philip Hannay Well when I started school there were no PCs and not even electronic calculators in use. I remember an older brother who was in secondary school when I was in primary school getting a very large electronic calculator – the first one I had ever seen. So yes I started life in the age of the abacus but as I highlighted in my earlier post http://thetimeblawg.com/2018/02/11/hack-the-past-how-the-legal-profession-knew-nothing-about-technology/ I (like other Gereration Xers and Baby Boomers) have seen many advances in technology and can appreciate what technology can do for us in a way that might be lost on millennials.

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Yvonne Nath: I am sitting in Toronto at the #GlobalLegalHackathon right now and there is a trademark attorney who was a programmer in his past life. His ability to communicate ways for applying tech to legal to address business needs is wonderful.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Yvonne Nath. Lawyers who are also programmers may find a niche and a future in Legal Technology development. But do you think all lawyers should be able to code well? Also does it take a knowledge of coding (rather than an interest in and understanding of technology) to be able to communicate ways of applying tech to legal to address business needs?

Yvonne Nath: Programmers who understand legal, as well as lawyers who can program, can certainly specialize as Legal Technologists.

As for non-programmer lawyers, No, I do not believe lawyers need to be able to code, but perhaps if they can think like a coder when approaching challenges, that may help them come up with innovative approaches. They can at least be able to meet technologists in the middle to explain processes and goals in a way a technologist might see them. For example, building a risk analysis tree using conditional statements… or mapping a process to identify where technology can remove a bottleneck.

Perhaps we just need more legal hackathons!

Brian Inkster: Thanks again Yvonne Nath. I wonder whether coding is really a skill one needs to set out a risk analysis tree or to process map? These things can of course be done by non coders and then bring in the coders if need be. Although often process mapping is simply an important step to use existing technology that is at your fingertips more efficiently without any further coding input being required.

I am unsure whether more legal hackathons is the answer. There may be some overthinking going on at them with the emphasis on AI and blockchain. Simpler wins are possibly being overlooked as a result.

Yvonne Nath: Brian Inkster, thank you for leading this critical thinking…I would agree that coding is not needed for process mapping and risk analyses. I guess I was just trying to say that being able to think like a coder (if-then statements for risk analyses) allows one to communicate better with technologists (not coders, exclusively). Being able to think in different languages helps open up channels of creative thinking which, in turn, can lead to innovative approaches to solving problems.

Yvonne Nath: What are you thinking with respect to “simpler wins”?

Brian Inkster: Most lawyers Yvonne Nath have very analytical minds and are good at risk analysis (although maybe too risk averse). If they apply themselves to creative thinking (which they probably don’t do enough of) and there are ways to prod that out of them (e.g. design thinking) then that can lead to innovative approaches to solving problems without coding having to feature.

Brian Inkster: On ‘simpler wins’ Yvonne Nath I was thinking incremental improvements that don’t involve bells, whistles and the hype surrounding AI and blockchain e.g. http://thetimeblawg.com/2014/07/04/improving-for-reinvent-law-london-2014/

Yvonne Nath: Brian Inkster, right on w/r/t coding not being an essential capability of lawyers, but I would say that events such as hackathons are successful platforms for inspiring risk-taking and creative thinking!

Brian Inkster: Possibly Yvonne Nath. But often I see the wheel being reinvented. I might expand on that in a full blog post on The Time Blawg.

Yvonne Nath: I look forward to reading your blog, Brian Inkster, and hope Philipa Jane Farley elaborates on how her coding background has helped her in her law career. Here is an article from Robert Ambrogi today in which he reflects on hackathons: “Whatever the actual applications it bred, the Global Legal Hackathon created a kind of legal technology good karma, and that karma is likely to fuel even further cooperation and innovation in law on a global scale.”

On Hackathons And Karma

Philipa Jane Farley: Yvonne Nath Thank you for the mention. Currently I’m working in the privacy law space and change within organisations (not just surface level compliance) and before that more in the compliance space where contract review was a large part of the job. My work invariably lands up in a space where I am an interpretor between board level or ‘the bosses’ and the IT department or between legal and IT.  IT may need to say that they cannot do something but they can’t say it in a way that is understood and then again, they sometimes need to understand that something has to be done whether they are fully prepared for it or not so at that stage I can step in and help them adjust the way that they need to approach an issue.  To explain, I don’t just have a coding background but it grew into IT management, too.  Now, in the privacy law space when working with systems within organisations I have an intuitive (and well grounded) understanding of how things work so it cuts down audit times drastically and makes reporting richer.  I also have a better understanding of how an organisation would be connected up in terms of external systems so when doing 3rd party discoveries, we manage in an audit to get it all out in the open.

Philipa Jane Farley: Yvonne Nath On the other side, coding is problem solving and simplyifying, making things better and teamwork all rolled into one.  Bringing those values into the law space allows for a fresh approach and creativity in thinking.  Privacy by design is a great little crossover niche for people who have law and coding.

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Ann-Maree David: Great post Brian and thanks for sharing comments by Jordan Furlong as well.  It takes a long time and a lot of effort to become a great lawyer.  Better we hone our collaboration skills early on so we can work with the experts in so many other areas including coding and design and let everyone achieve their full potential.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Ann-Maree David. A good way of expressing it.

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Cameron Hodgson: Interesting point. There seems to be increasing opportunities for learning anyway, eg on futurelearn.com; at least for some of the background to it. Best wishes

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John O’Gorman: Should lawyers code? That’s what they do now, isn’t it? They just don’t do it for computers… they take a perfectly straight forward piece of content and transmogrify it into gobbledegook! 😀

I’m just not sure if that’s a transferable skill.

Bruce Laidlaw: To be serious: a well written contract or escrow agreement is very similar to coding.  It is structured, references common sections where appropriate, etc.  A badly written   contract is just like bad code: repetitious, jumbled, hard to follow and even harder to change in one place without breaking it in another.

Thomas Lukasik: Bruce.. given your analogy, it would be great if they just had some good debugging tools 😉

Bruce Laidlaw: Thomas Lukasik, I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have an analysis tool that would show references and links.  In data management there used to be a tool that would read contracts, extracting the ‘will’, ‘shall’ and ‘must’ phrases for example.

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Tara Taubman-Bassirian: You should be at the Global Hackatin

Brian Inkster: I could have been as I was in London all weekend! However, I had other fish to fry. I saw from Twitter that you Tara were there and thanks for keeping me up to date in tweets with what was happening on the ground as it happened.

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Adam Manning: Always delighted to see a photo of a proper computer 🙂

Brian Inkster: They don’t make them like that anymore Adam Manning 🙂

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Dominic Jaar: Lawyers, as most other professionals, should code. Coding is the literacy of the 21st century.

Decades ago, lawyers could read and write, while the majority could not… Now, the majority can leverage technology while most lawyers can’t.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Dominic Jaar. Reading and writing always was and remains an important part of being a lawyer. However, I find it difficult to see how coding now might be as important.

We all use technology every day without knowing or needing to know how it was coded. We are not about to re-engineer our smart phones, our PCs, laptops, tablets or the software that runs on them. Others make them to make our lives easier – we just need to know how to use them.

The same, as far as I can see it, is true of legal technology. Leveraging that has nothing to do with being able to code but is all about embracing and using.

Gordon Leigh: The first industrial revolution was about mechanisation. The business owners at that time didn’t need to become mechanical engineers to use this new technology. They just needed an understanding and an imagination to see how it could apply to their business.

I met a lawyer a while ago who told me “if you’re smart then you’re a doctor or a lawyer, so if anyone is going to build something it should be us.” Useful progress is made by collaboration and integration of different disciplines – not from self-idolisation.

Of course, I’m passionate about programming, and I think everyone (who is interested) should have a go. As Philipa Jane Farley has already said, it gives great transferable skills in engineering thinking and creativity – however playing around is not the same as building industry-ready software, and it would be a mistake to assume that people can successfully adopt a second profession simultaneously.

Dominic Jaar: Hi Brian Inkster,

Thanks for your reply.

My vision is that providing legal advices, drafting pleas and contracts, etc. is the historical way of providing legal services. Moving forward, as many have already recognized, such services will be delivered through physical and logical assets that ensure compliance by design.

If my prediction is accurate, given lawyers’ legal and ethical obligations, I’m suggesting they should be able to develop, or at least QC and audit, these assets to properly discharge of these obligations. In any case, I would not be comfortable as a mere end user relying on a third party black box.

Cheers!
Dj)

Dominic Jasr: Hi Gordon Leigh,

Without repeating my comment to Brian Inkster, I would suggest that your answer, while appealing prima facie, is based on a premise that I do not support : programming is complex. Perhaps at some point it was true and in some areas it still is, but overall these pockets of complexities seem to be shrinking as programming is being simplified by the day. In fact, many programmers now rely on public libraries and are master copy-pasters. Furthermore, somehow supporting my theory that coding is the 21st century literacy, many schools now teach kids to code and will see them joining the work force with capabilities that will be stronger than that of digital immigrants who have learned later in their life.

That being said, I certainly understand that it may be scary to current programmers to see new entrants in their market.

Gordon Leigh: Thanks for replying Dominic Jaar.  IT in general, and software development in particular, is an industry which seems to suffer disproportionately from the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Although a lawyer can piece together a contract by copying and pasting clauses from online resources, I would assume that at some point the lawyer must have an actual understanding of what they are doing, not least because I don’t want to pay £200 per hour for someone whose skills amount to reading and writing.

A lot of the projects I have worked on have been to try to tidy up the mess created by people who think that programming is easy.  You might have something that starts off looking like it works, but try maintaining a million lines of code a few years down the line when it was written by someone who didn’t understand how to write maintainable code.  Although crap developers have created the impression that it is normal for applications to be flaky and throw up errors all the time, it causes significant harm to the businesses which are trying to rely on this software.

If you’ve got 5 mins, take a look at this interesting post about “the Expert Beginner”: https://www.daedtech.com/how-developers-stop-learning-rise-of-the-expert-beginner/

Dominic Jar: Thanks for the good laugh Gordon and the interesting post on the expert beginner!

I agree that we need to improve code quality, and would dare to suggest that, perhaps, lawyer (who are trained at over documenting and reviewing) coders could play a role to pursue this noble objective. In fact, if you look at different laws, you will see that their structure and documentation is akin to some code. Interestingly enough, some of these laws are embbeded in what is referred to as Codes…

Brian Inkster: Thanks Dominic Jaar and Gordon Leigh for your insights. Having weighed them up I’m with Gordon on this one. I’ll stick to legal codes and let the software coders do what they are expert in.

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Allen Woods: Noooooooooo…..  Burn the heretic.. Make them learn 8086 assembler first…

Brian Inkster: Allen Woods You must be older than Philip Hannay thinks I am!

Allen Woods: Ooh chasing 63 from the wrong side….  But  seriously, There is a lot of stuff that is said in  respect of the impact of GDPR that I find is astounding in terms of the level of technical ignorance it displays.  It means that people really don’t understand what us geeks  get up to.. And that is increasingly and untenable position.  And I would  suggest that learning to code is one of those things that an awful lot of lawyers would do  well to learn about..  And it does not have to be that expensive to do either…  Learning to write the odd word macro for example would be fine (and by that I do not mean using the recorder..  Because then people might just begin to get what a game changer the GDPR is….

Brian Inkster: I have difficulties with word macros but I have someone in the office who is a whiz with them 🙂

Allen Woods: Hee…  Over the past 10 years I have had tto read and understand several US Acts of Congree,, four Acts of Parliament and the GDPR….  Revenge is sweet…..

Philipa Jane Farley: Allen Woods As long as you never have to wade through the UK’s IP law (in particular the Copyright Act….) There would be cause for payback if that was the case.

Allen Woods: Well now…  That too is something I have had to dabble in and I have an atomised searchable copy of that in my library of atomised documents….  Soooo, get coding….    you too can do that…

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Gordon Leigh: I agree with this. It takes a long time to become a competent programmer. Getting started is deceptively simple. Writing useful software is more advanced than “hello world”.  Lawyers should learn about technology and how their business could evolve with this technology, but then entrust implementation to people who have spent years honing their skills. I can write something that looks like a contract, but no lawyer would advise me to do that. Why is this any different?

Ann-Maree David: Great post Gordon.  The real skills we should all be honing are collaboration and communication so we can work in multidisciplinary teams.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Gordon Leigh. Well expressed. If it does take 10,000 hours to really master a skill as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in ‘Outliers’ you would be better mastering the one skill you are really going to need in your area of work. For a lawyer that will be the law (or more likely specific legal niches in the area that they practice in) : for a programmer that will be coding.

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Isabelle Lajeunesse: I am personally between the two philosophies. I think today’s lawyers need to understand technology better. We can not represent our clients without a clear understanding of what they are doing. However, I’m not sure that all lawyers need to code unless you have real talent. To make an analogy with the medical world, my friend can read and know all the details of a surgery but if I need an operation, I want a real surgeon, not someone who reads on the subject or who practice medicine from time to time.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Isabelle Lajeunesse. And to continue that analogy you might not want the heart monitor you are attached to during the surgery to be a new one that your surgeon has decided to build because he can make a better one than the existing tried and tested expert systems.

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Philipa Jane Farley: I was a coder in a life before law school. It is invaluable to me now.

Brian Inkster: Thanks Philipa Jane Farley. I would be interested to hear more about how coding has been invaluable to you as a lawyer. Can you eleborate? Whilst you came from a coding background before doing law do you think that all lawyers should or need to also be coders?

Philipa Jane Farley: Hi Brian Inkster thank you for the mention.  I elaborated more above with Yvonne Nath. I don’t necessarily think that all lawyers should or need to also be coders as for some it doesn’t fit well.  If you consider the values you can bring into the law space (creative collaboration whilst sticking to a set of acceptable standards, problem solving whilst simplyfing), then I see a better fit for what coding brings to law.  With regards to having a more technical insight, it would help to have a basic understanding of systems but to acknowledge the fact that hiring in an expert who can translate would be best (as you mention in your article).  I do love the correlation in the tweet you embedded. However, my father was a farmer who could build tractors so 🙂

Brian Inkster: Thanks Philipa Jane Farley for elaborating and clarifying your thoughts. There will always be niches that a coding lawyer like you will beneficially find themselves in. Just like a Chinese speaking English lawyer might find such a niche. Glad you agree that all lawyers do not need to be coders just like all lawyers don’t need to speak Chinese. You clearly take after your father! I knew a farmer who built planes and fish gutting machines. Also a baker who improvised with baking machines to make them better. These are special and unique people who liked to get their own hands dirty implementing their ideas. A lawyer can have ideas of how to improve things using tech but can always hire in the people whose hands will get dirty implementing it.

Philipa Jane Farley: Absolutely agree with that Brian Inkster


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