Document Automation is not a good use case for Lawyers Learning to Code

No use case for lawyers learning to code
I thought as a lawyer I would be in court not coding!

Artificial Lawyer has suggested in a recent article that if you have a good use case then lawyers should learn to code. The good use case, in his opinion, in this instance is yet another new document automation tool.

Apparently Firelex is “a platform that allows for relatively straightforward coding to create your own bespoke automated contract templates”.

Artificial Lawyer’s view on this is:-

Does this change the response to the old adage ‘should lawyers learn to code?’

Yes and no. Should…or must…lawyers learn to code because they now work in a world of more software tools..? Nope. Of course not. You don’t need to know how to code all the software you use in your life.

But should lawyers who actively want to create their own bespoke templates in this way learn to code? Now, that’s a different proposition. And the answer has to be: if there’s actual value in you doing it yourself, so you get the template you want in rapid time and don’t need to outsource it to consultants or your already busy tech team….then it seems like a good idea.

Does this mean all lawyers need to learn to code now…? Nope. Little has changed there. It’s still going to be a very niche thing, namely for those lawyers who fancy being able to do this coding work themselves. And that is never going to be everyone. It might just be three or four lawyers in each firm, or one person in an inhouse legal team. But, this would still be quite a sizeable population when spread across the entire legal market.

This view completely ignores the reality of legal practice. Lawyers are extremely busy professional people whose value is in doing the legal work they have been trained to do. They simply don’t have the time to faff about with coding templates (something they know nothing about) before using them. They simply need the templates at their disposal to use when drafting.

Even if you managed to persuade “three or four lawyers in each firm”  to code for Firelex (and I don’t believe for one minute you would actually achieve that in any meaningful, useful and productive way) those lawyers are not going to have the time to implement coding on the specific templates used by non-coding lawyers in the firm or those outside their own practice areas.

Also different law firms use different case management systems with different document automation tools all set up slightly differently. If you train on Firelex coding it won’t necessarily help you ‘code’ another document automation tool.

Another issue is the lack of control of templates and processes if lawyers are allowed to run amok changing or creating templates at will.

Law firms have support staff for a simple reason: to allow solicitors to concentrate on the higher level work that they should be concentrating on.

Part of that support should include ensuring lawyers have technology at their disposal that they can use (granted that they will need training to use it) but not that they should have to build!

At my law firm, Inksters, we have a dedicated Legal Process Engineer, Diane Ireland. She is not a lawyer. She ensures that our case management system has the templates our lawyers require set up and operational within it, without our lawyers having to worry about the mechanics or technology behind the scenes that make it work for them.

Firelex advertises itself as “the document automation platform that allows lawyers to be coders”. That’s like advertising a PC as “the personal computer that allows lawyers to be secretaries”. Lawyers want to be lawyers and shouldn’t be expected to be anything else. Give them the tools that they can use to make their work more efficient, ready set up to be used and train them how to use them.

Firelex is holding a hackathon later this year to help people to learn how to use its system. All participants in the hackathon will be invited to an event in London in October, where they will present their projects to a jury of lawyers and coders, who will pick the Firelex lawyer of the year. There is a banner advert on the Artificial Lawyer site promoting this competition and tempting you to “join the revolution!”. That might explain his view on there being a use case in this instance for lawyers learning to code. It will be interesting to see which firms participate in the hackathon.

For more on why lawyers don’t need to learn to code see: Lawyers and coding

Reactions on Social Media

In addition to the comments in the comments section below there have been reactions to this post on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

On LinkedIn the following comments have been made:-

Kevin van Tonder (I help drive innovation, value and change in legal teams):

“I think it is useful to know the basics so that can interact with software developers better, whether in a role as legal counsel or in working with them to develop a new law tech product. But in terms of your day job, you should be a lawyer or be a software developer.”

Me:

Thanks Kevin. Of course most lawyers will never interact with the software developers but just with the software. Although I agree if you are going to interact some basics won’t go amiss. Mine dates back to BBC Basic from the 1980s and that is more than enough basic understanding for any interactions I may have.

Nina Kilbride (Principal at Corpening Labs):

Maybe. This mentality where I live (Research Triangle Park NC) has resulted in decades of siloed regulatory software that no-one had any idea how to integrate – if devs can read the regulations, we don’t need lawyers, or so the thinking goes. Trillions in lost opportunities over the years because there’s no practical cross-training. As a practical matter, the tech training should be had before law school – the lack of tech savvy is a result of who chooses to become a lawyer. The next 5-10 years of bloodshed in US legal academia will answer this question. Change is coming – it will be apparent to youngsters. It’s us oldsters who must choose how to adapt today.

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Rob Marrs (Policy | Education | Legal Tech | Diversity & Inclusion):

Agree. Coding probably a nice to have (a bit like a foreign language – not likely make or break but never a bad thing).

Me:

Thanks Rob. But like a foreign language your opportunity to regularly use it in any meaningful way may be limited as a lawyer.

Rob Marrs:

Brian Inkster that’s kind of the point. For a small number of lawyers being bilingual will be useful. For a smaller number again it may be extremely important to business. For most lawyers it won’t be an every day thing but knowing one won’t ever be a bad thing.

There’s plenty they could focus on instead. One example would be getting really, really, really good at Word, Excel and using PDFs!

Nina Kilbride (Principal at Corpening Labs):

I find going back to those tools the worst part of leaving a tech startup. They really do create friction and slow things down.

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Nina Kilbride (Principal at Corpening Labs):

My biased opinion is that lawyers learning to code is useful if it is attendant to some other goal.  “I can only achieve X if I use tech-based tool Y.” Document automation is definitely not such a goal.

Me:

Thanks Nina. But often achieving X using tech-based tool Y wont require any coding by the lawyer. Can you think of any examples that would?

Nina Kilbride:

Yes. Forensic analysis for litigation. It’s why I started learning to code in the first place. Then, when I wanted to get creative with digital assets, I had to learn to code because there were no no-code tools. Nowadays I tend to use the command line for some things, but little code construction other than logic. If I have to reinvent the wheel at code level, the market likely isn’t ready.

Also, in construction of data models for client needs, it’s very important to know what is possible, best practices, etc. That involves familiarity with several coding conventions, and the ability to construct a passable expression that a deeper dev talent can integrate into the stack. Data models matter a lot nowadays. Can a lawyer figure this out by working closely with a coder? Possibly. I also find there are a great many folks who have a vested interest in lawyers remaining ignorant so they can build a tech company to sell/undercut them.

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Jon Busby (People | Connect | Solve):

I’d use an example like WordPress that I use for my photography work site. In the old days (10+ years ago) I used to have to do a bit of coding, tweaking HTML etc, but now I just use themes and plug-ins and easily adjust their settings. There is a whole marketplace of plug-ins for just about anything you can imagine, designed by coders who understand the user needs. Their business model lives or dies on understanding that. I have no idea how a plug-in is coded and have zero interest in knowing. It works, use it, move on. If it doesn’t work bin it and find an alternative.

Lawyers barely have time to reply to an email so where would they find the time to code and, often missed by many commentators, maintain the code?

George Beaton (Adviser | Researcher | Speaker | Author):

Couldn’t agree more Jon. When I get in our car, I expect it to start, engage gears, etc. I never look under the bonnet, let alone at the transmission.

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James D. Ford, GAICD (General Practice Lawyer aka innovative Counsel [iC]™ + Governance Renewal incl. Blue Ocean Strategy®):

What I have seen to date is the automation of existing legal precedents (which contain many flaws).

The following code says it all:

Garbage in = Garbage out!

This is not innovative.

Lawyers need new skills and perspectives so that the process becomes a transformative one.

Surprisingly, it is important to distinguish between:

-> learning to code (which is not one of the new skills required); and

-> learning to “think like a coder”
(which in my view is one of the many new perspectives which are key to creating
#ValueInnovation).

Brian Inkster thanks for generating this debate.

If you are a law firm, lawyer or legal technologist interested in transforming legal agreements without needing to learn how to code…please DM me to discuss further.

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Mariana Hagström (Founder and CEO @Avokaado):

I do not think that lawyers should learn to code, not for contract automation, neither to some other purpose. Still, lawyers need to change the habits how they work, share knowledge and use tech. Avokaado uses ML to automate, document upload and 50% of the automation is done by algoritme within 1 second. Only legal engineering, defining interdependencies between different choices and clauses is lawyers’ job but this is without coding, definitely.

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Viktor Heide (COO & Founder @ Contractbook | Startup Mentor):

Interesting read and discussion here! 👆

We wrote a peace on the subjects back in March –> check it out here:

https://suits.contractbook.co/legaltechweekly/do-lawyers-need-to-learn-to-code

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And on Twitter:-

Alex G Smith:

Why does the hackathon have to be their platform? Could we not have automated document of the year on any of the 100s of platforms? Contract Express, HotDocs, Exari, Neota, HighQ etc. Maybe have a best one with a female name category?

LawHawk:

Great idea. For a warmup we could each automate a new NDA form, which would have ongoing value as it could then spawn some more AI NDA review tools.

Alex G Smith:

NDAs is the Da Vinci Code of LegalTech …

Me:

Because it is all PR fluff to market (they hope sell) their platform. Sure though we could set up an independent ‘automated document of the year’ awards. Bring in @jezhop and @AlexHamiltonRad as judges (they have the experience I believe). There can of course be a GROWLauto award.

Alex G Smith:

Is this not like the police trick when they invite criminals to a “you’ve won the lottery party” and then arrest them. The organisations that attend are outing themselves as not having done doc auto? Unlike those for whom doc auto is just the norm with standard processes.

Me:

Good analogy! Some of the orgs that go probably will already have doc auto shelfware 😉

Rupert Collins-White:

The Document Automation Honey Trap

Alex G Smith:

Wasn’t that the chapter title for document automation in THAT book

Rupert Collins-White:

I do not know this book.

Alex G Smith:

Hope some folk turn up with some awesome innovative ideas for inputs/triage/outputs on the open source (free) DocAssemble @docassemble or Community Lawyer built on it @LawyerCommunity

Me:

All done in PowerPoint 😉

Alex G Smith:

This is getting meta. A hackathon to create a PowerPoint automation platform to automate start up pitch documents. The winner is the most generic automated pitch presentation …

For example: system question, is your start up idea disruptive (yes/no), sub question what industry (dropdown) … creates a slide with some generic big-4 swooshy image and the words “We will uberise pet food” …

Ed Wilson:

It’s been half done. Hit refresh:

https://strategy-madlibs.herokuapp.com

Alex G Smith:

Surely the Big4 have PowerPoint automation software?

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Alex Hamilton:

Ouch 😂

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Nir Golan:

My 2 cents: I don’t think lawyers should/will be coding as they should be spending more time working w/their customers, understanding what they need. Coding will do just the opposite. More disconnection. More anti-human skills and more silos because they’ll be again working alone.

If we want collaboration, the lawyers to be able to understand better the needs of clients let’s get them out of their caves and not deeper into their caves. This i can everything will deepen the silos and stifle the collaboration with other pro’s such as tech and programmers.

Me:

Ah… so my post was about silos after all 😉

Nir Golan:

Yep I guess so. Coding will impact the lawyers very negatively health wise as if they’re not busy enough. Let’s add more things to do.. it’s the the goal to make legal human?

“There’s no honor in proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And.. it’s lonely”

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Me:

“Rather than have one new lawyer learn how to code, it would be much better for the industry to have 10 lawyers understand how to export a .docx to .PDF, ffs.” comment in on the latest blog post from @aronsolomon

Craig A. Atkinson, CITP‏ (@craigaatkinson): 

😂

Nir Golan:

Spot on @aronsolomon- consistent w/ my recent experiences w/2 firms. U want to do a zoom call w/ them they said they don’t do tech and only work w/ landlines.They come to present something at our offices.They struggle with PowerPoint.Not criticizing.Just saying.#realitycheck

Andrew Tibber:

Or how to use automatic cross-referencing

Martin Clausen:

Now you raised the bar way to high. Next you will be expecting automatic numbering of sections or other similar magic.

Drink RC (@leanattorney):

Seriously?  Who can’t figure bout how to export a .docx to PDF???

Catherine Bamford‏ (@BamLegal):

I work with lawyers under 10 yrs pqe daily. They can all convert to pdf, insert a cross ref and understand if then else logic. Those working at the coal face right now have good ideas and enthusiasm for change. Let them try if they want to.

Me:

Might be the over 10 years PQE that need the training @aronsolomon refers to. Of course if they or the younger ones want to try coding too then they can but they should weigh up the benefits of such training over other things they could be learning to do instead.

Aron Solomon:

He was. The under 10s are great (as are some of the more experienced lawyers). I’m referencing those with the most power to make decisions and spend money.

Alex G Smith:

People wanting to do things everywhere and what they need exposure to is multi-disciplinary teams and experts in other areas such as technology (as technology is wider than coding – I can’t code). Regularly talk to very confused future lawyers/curious lawyers like “coding”, technology, design, being empathetic, business skills, and then the BS stuff like blockchains and whatever else is fashionable this month. I’d suggest this isn’t a core skill but nice to have, but then loads of other nice to haves whilst this all settles.

Nir Golan:

Is coding really the focus in light of customers’/users’ needs from lawyers? As a customer, I say definitely no. Lawyers have a hard time understanding their customers and we want them to code now?

Kind of reminds me of this…

“Richard W Smith:

Great comment from @matthomann: ‘There are many bones in the desert of innovation of ideas that were ahead of their time’ #legal #strategy #innovation”

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Alex G Smith:

I almost dropped my croissant in my coffee today when I read the article.

Me:

At least you didn’t choke on your cornflakes 😉 #cornflakequake

Alex G Smith:

I’ve lost my mojo with cornflakes, it’s not as edgy as the late 90s quaking era.

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Quinten Steenhuis:

Are off the shelf systems enough though? Isn’t asking lawyers to understand basic doc automation similar to asking an accountant to be able to create a spreadsheet?

Martin Clausen:

Understanding the basic mechanics of document assembly so the can contribute effectively to the process and expecting/wanting lawyers to do the coding of templates/questionnaires is not the same thing. I think the former is a very reasonable expectation.

Me:

I agree with @MartinClausen8. The lawyers will need training on how to use the doc automation system but shouldn’t be expected to build it. The accountant needs to know how to use Excel not how re-write and create their own version of Excel.

Quinten Steenhuis:

Big gap between coding a spreadsheet application from scratch vs using formulas, VLOOKUP, etc to do moderately complex accounting. Isn’t there a step between using a template someone else built and being a coder that is useful for lawyers? An adaptable but purpose-built tool.

3 Replies to “Document Automation is not a good use case for Lawyers Learning to Code”

  1. *gently cradles own head*

    I used to ask why the legal industry was ten years behind other industries that start to become innovative. I now ask why the legal industry has fallen 15 years behind many of these other industries and verticals.

    The idea that lawyers need to learn how to code is something that other industries figured out at least a decade ago was not the case.

    To restate the obvious that has been stated pretty much everywhere else before, if lawyers want to understand how to code or want to code themselves, that’s fantastic. But this notion that it is something anywhere near as important as the depth of skill and knowledge a lawyer needs to acquire, or even as important as understanding how to use basic tools of technology, is absolutely ridiculous.

    Rather than have one new lawyer learn how to code, it would be much better for the industry to have 10 lawyers understand how to export a .docx to .PDF, ffs.

    1. Thanks Aron

      Why this debate continues is indeed perplexing. But I guess in this particular instance it was possibly a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune!

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