To code or not to code, that’s the question

In a recent article in Lawtomated, “To Code or Not to Code: should lawyers learn to code?”, the arguments for and against lawyers learning to code, and whether this even is the right question to ask, was examined in a very pragmatical and nuanced way.

As pointed out in the article, the “should lawyers should learn to code?”-debate seems to be driven by an increasing interest and investment in legaltech, but it’s also partly hype driven, feeding off the general legaltech hype. Undoubtedly lawyers possess many skills and practices that make them amenable to coding skills (in particular, attention to detail, problem-solving, structure skills and research abilities), but does this mean that there is any real benefit for a legal practice having any of its lawyers learning to code?

Well, it depends of course on the reason for why you as a lawyer should want to learn coding. What are you trying to achieve by learning to code? How (if at all) will learning to code benefit you and/or your practice?

If it’s about wanting to learn coding as a new hobby or to challenge yourself, or perhaps even looking to change jobs and move out of law, or to start or join a start-up? Then by all means, it’s great that you want to learn to code! But are you looking for something to benefit your practice? Well, then the answer might be a bit different.

As pointed out in the article, there seems to be a misconception that lawyers learning to code will transform law or unlock lots of great software solutions to solve legal and organisational challenges. But that is to underestimate the skill and knowledge of experienced coders.

In other professions, like for example in banking, techies are often integral parts of both the machine and its management. Whereas at law firms, techies don’t get equity nor work on the frontline to solve client problems. Instead, there is often an archaic and unhelpful distinction between “fee earners” (lawyers) and “non-fee earners” (everyone else). To different degrees, this is another blocker to innovation and effective use of technology to drive business value vs. keep the lights on.

So, are there then no pros to lawyers learning to code? Again, it depends on the “why”. What’s the problem being solved by lawyers learning to code? Is that an actual need? Is the real problem bigger? Is it actually about greater collaboration, ideation and understanding of processes between teams within legal organisations and tackling those challenges together against appropriately aligned incentives and progression structures that reflect today’s need for cross-functionality in business? If so, there is absolutely a point for lawyers to learn coding from a more general perspective. Knowing how to code and in general how key technologies work can help diligence potential solutions, whether presented internally or by external vendors. Tech is full of jargon, and worse, has a troubling history of overhyping and under-delivering in the short term (e.g. A.I. and blockchain most recently). Knowing a little goes a long way in this context as well. These skills give you an edge and can allow you to probe what you’re told but also pre-empt which solutions might exist and be most appropriate rather than starting from a blank slate. This will be helpful whether you are buying tech in a legal team context or starting your own tech based start-up.

But if you want to learn to code to develop your business or to innovate yourself, sorry but then the answer is no. As pointed out in the article, coding is like any language: you need to invest significant and consistent amounts of time to learn it effectively. Dipping in and out of coding will only lead to disappointment. A few lawyers learning to code in a law firm isn’t going to deliver much value in this regard. Better then to hire experienced coders than for the lawyers to learn to code! With this, it comes back to why you (an individual or your legal organisation) are learning to code. If you’re learning to talk tech and translate between techies, internal or external, then this argument against isn’t an issue. But if you’re expecting to build production-ready apps straight out the gate then you need to reset your expectations.

So, in conclusion, rather than learning to code, it’s better for lawyers to aim for a more general understanding of technology, like learning core technology concepts, components, concerns and logic, to build bridges between different professions. Taking such a more open approach to legaltech in general, will reduce friction between lawyers and technologists, whether internal or external, and enable better conversations and greater collaboration. It might also sow seeds of macro change to the law firm structure. In any way, it will be much more beneficial for the law firm practice than if certain individual lawyers take on coding simply for wanting to sound clever or for the fun of it.