Lawyers Learning to Code

What It’s Like Learning to Code as a Lawyer (Part 1)

It’s a lot of time spent on Google!

But before that, a little bit about why I learnt to code after spending over a decade drafting and negotiating long, complex contracts.

I had left my law firm job and dived head-first into building my own tech start-up. There was always the option of hiring an experienced software developer, but that felt too slow and expensive for early market testing. So I taught myself using free internet resources.

The question of whether lawyers should learn to code continues to be a hot topic, but the proportion of legal industry commentators who have actually tried it themselves is slim. So this is a first-hand account of what it’s been like.

It’s called a language for a reason

The average educated person can read a basic contract. They can even write a basic contract that in all likelihood will be enforceable.

On the other hand, reading code for the first time was like trying to decipher an alien dialect of English. Writing code during the first few weeks almost resulted in a smashed keyboard and monitor.

The knowledge hurdle is substantial. There really is no substitution for the traditional application of time and effort. Like learning any language, you won’t get far attending lunchtime sessions or watching YouTube tutorials – you need to get out there and practise.

The precedents are amazing

On the upside, the knowledge resources for software development will blow your mind.

Whereas legal precedents and guides are generally only available to the largest law firms and those who can shell out for a Practical Law or LexisNexis account, open-source code samples ranging from the very simple to the highly complex, together with detailed tutorials, are freely available on the other side of a Google search.

This was definitely a shock. Most lawyers need to be dragged kicking and screaming to contribute to knowledge resources, and then once created, those resources are heavily guarded. In the software development world, people seem to want to share their work, and have others build and further improve on it. Weird.

Is the legal industry’s closed approach a result of time-based billing structures? Is it to do with the inherent confidentiality of legal documents? Is it to do with a concern that the unsupervised use of legal templates can have damaging real-world consequences? I feel there’s a good reason, but I’m not yet sure what it is.

Collaboration is next level

Another shock was when I discovered software developers ask coding questions to, and answer coding questions from, complete strangers over the internet. And literally anyone has the ability to view those questions and answers.

To be fair, I think most lawyers are very helpful to their colleagues. But once a lawyer steps outside their organisation, good luck getting any unpaid support, let alone from a faceless username.

We all know the cautionary tale of the well-meaning lawyer who gives some casual advice on the side, only to suddenly find themselves on the end of a professional negligence suit. And asking someone how to format an image on a webpage is obviously very different to asking what carve outs you should try to negotiate in your limitation of liability clause.

But also, who are these people who sit there and answer questions about coding problems? Imagine a world where any lawyer from any organisation can post anonymous questions on a website, and a senior partner or barrister answers it completely free of charge, with the message thread open for everyone to see. How amazing would that be?

Coming up

This is the first article in a two-part series about what it’s been like learning to code as a lawyer.

In the next article, I discuss every lawyer’s biggest fear and every coder’s daily reality: errors in your work.

 Daniel Yim
Daniel Yim writes and teaches on legal technology and transformation. He is the founder of technology start-ups Sideline and Bumpd, and previously worked worked at Gilbert + Tobin and Axiom.

Also read top viewed Ai Legal article: The Role of AI in Legal Research.

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