The coding lawyer decoded

30 September 2020

The coding lawyer decoded

Technology trends have led to an increasing number of lawyers learning to code. Law firms and law schools alike are offering courses in coding designed for lawyers. Whether designed to improve a lawyer’s knowledge of the language of computers or merely to improve his problem solving ability, coding lawyers are everywhere. Espie Angelica A. de Leon reports.

John Paul Gaba, a partner at Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz in Manila, has always been fascinated by computers.

At law school, computer science was among his fields of interest. It is now one of the primary areas of his legal practice.

To understand the “logic” and “sense” behind codes and programming, Gaba enrolled in some courses. To beef up his knowledge and skillset even more, he is planning to learn SQL soon since data and databases are increasingly becoming important to companies.

Alejandra Figueiras, founder and CEO of Plecta Legal Tech in Madrid, has always been interested in technology, as well. She enrolled in and got admitted to a tough data science programme at The Data Incubator, a data science education company in Washington. There, she learned to code using the Python programming language.

Figueiras was the only lawyer among the participants. She was also 42 by the time she learned to code.

“Even though being a professional programmer was not a requirement, I did have to learn coding to be admitted,” she says. She got herself a tutor who taught her twice a week for four months. In between, she relied on online tutorials.

Upon learning the basics, she felt ready for her goal in Washington. There, she studied coding for eight hours a day for two months. When the programme ended, she continued learning.

 

Meanwhile, in Australia, Gilbert + Tobin collaborated with assessment-led learning expert General Assembly in 2016 to mount a series of coding workshops that applied to a range of abilities and experience. The workshops taught the three main coding languages: HTML, the language of content; CSS, the language of design; and JavaScript, the language of behavior.

“JavaScript is a highly adaptive language which can be used for quick hacks, web development and even elemental smart contracts on the blockchain,” says Daniel Yim, a lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin in Melbourne.

They’re doing the same thing at Zico IP in Bangkok. The firm’s Knowledge Management team developed a curriculum for training its lawyers on trends in legal technology. The curriculum includes a module that covers coding with an introduction to JavaScript and Python. More training opportunities on these coding languages are on the drawing board for the lawyers.

“We accept new technological solutions are going to shape how our firm operates in the future and we are hiring new staff with this in mind,” says Nuttaphol Arammuang, managing partner at the firm.

So is the legal profession soon going to be filled with lawyers who are coders at the same time?

 

“The aim of the coding training was not to make lawyers become experts in coding,” says Caryn Sandler, a partner and chief knowledge and innovation officer at Gilbert + Tobin in Sydney. “Instead, the training gives a basic understanding of the language of computers, and this is extremely valuable so that you can approach legal technology armed with some knowledge of how it works – not necessarily the details, but the basic principles.”

According to Yim, the training demystified some of the magic behind applications and made him appreciate how coding can be a way to a solution for the client.

Indeed, Yim, Gaba and Figueiras can attest to how coding knowledge has helped them as lawyers.

For Gaba, coding and programming are all about methodically solving problems. “Gaining a working knowledge on coding and programming will help lawyers acquire the skillset and mind frame of ‘solving problems’ – applying legal concepts and principles to a given situation in order to arrive at a more relevant and acceptable decision or conclusion,” he explains.

“What I used to see as a matter of legal articles, jurisprudence and interpretations applied to a specific situation, I can also see it now as an algorithm,” says Figueiras. “Many legal reasoning processes can be converted into a list of rules to follow in order to solve a problem, and this is an algorithm. I feel that combining those two very different thought patterns – the legal and the computational – gives me a competitive advantage nowadays.”

She says this way of thinking and approaching a problem is more aligned with the current generation.

 

“In my practice, I can think about many topics that could benefit from this innovative combined approach. Highly regulated fields like immigration, environmental, natural resources, tax, social security, intellectual property, banking and finance and some others in the administrative law area can automate and transform their procedures into efficient and affordable schemes by using the appropriate technologies,” says Figueiras.

It also improves logical reasoning, helping a lawyer think more methodically, rationally and proactively, all of which are important skills for successful lawyering. For one, Gaba says, proactive thinking allows the legal practitioner to anticipate future scenarios.

He adds that coding will make lawyers better understand the underpinnings of today’s technology-driven environment. This is important because future legal issues and cases will increasingly involve transactions, documents, and evidence existing in the digital world.

“As lawyers’ work becomes more tech-enabled and our clients focus increasingly on technology as a source of competitive advantage and legal efficiency, understanding coding has become a necessary skill to at least understand or learn,” says Yim. “Our clients come from a wide variety of industries, and these skills can offer a competitive advantage for clients regardless of whether you are working with technology companies, VCs or startups.”

Not only will coding know-how benefit the lawyer directly in his dealings with clients; it is also useful in law firm management.

 

“For one, we have seen in recent years technology and software applications being developed specifically catering to the needs of lawyers in terms of facilitating and aiding legal research, decision-making, contract drafting and negotiations. All these technological tools are made possible by the marriage of legal knowledge and technological know-how,” says Gaba.

“In my organization, I advocate a profound change in the way we practice law,” says Figueiras. “We want to make real people feel the law closer to them, as an ally, and this could happen by transforming the laws, as much as possible, into code and applications that anyone can understand and use.

Another thing he acquired from learning how to code, says Yim, is the ability to communicate better with IT professionals. They are becoming more and more involved in the delivery of legal services, he adds.

Though he would rather leave the study of coding to his firm’s younger lawyers owing to the scope of his job, Arammuang acknowledges it is a practical skill to have.

“For new lawyers, it is certainly a worthy skill to have considering the abundance of new legaltech solutions. With new blockchain technology and other automation solutions taking root in the legal industry, having even a basic understanding will become an advantage,” Arammuang says, “I wish I had the time to learn but as a managing partner in a law firm, my time is currently spread across various aspects of running the firm.”

 

Does knowledge in coding only serve lawyers in select practices and areas of expertise? Or is it helpful to lawyers in general regardless of practice?

According to Yim, this knowledge benefits lawyers across practices and areas of expertise including intellectual property. The reason for this is the pervasiveness of legal technology.

“As most of our lives have been ‘touched’ by computers and technology, more and more legal issues in areas that are not clearly or not completely ‘regulated’ crop up each time. Unfortunately, most of the time, law lags behind technological developments,” Gaba explains. “Our recent commonly shared experiences with this global pandemic taught us, among others, the importance of making that shift toward doing things virtually. And making that leap entails going into a sphere which for most parts, is totally new, unregulated, or not fully addressed by our current laws and regulations. And we all know that when there are new ways of doing things, new ways or forms of doing harm or taking advantage of others arise.”

It is especially useful for areas with a high volume of applicable laws and regulations and an elevated level of regulatory intervention, says Figueiras. Regulatory body or the public sector itself will likewise benefit. “These areas can systematize their rules and processes with matrices, databases, arrays and data structures bringing more predictability, order and legal certainty,” she explains.

Not everyone shares the same excitement over coding, though.

Stephen Yang, managing partner at IP March in Beijing, did study coding but he isn’t applying it to his law practice. He admits however that it does help a patent lawyer better understand a software invention and helps one undertake digital marketing sans an IT person.

 

Yet, he says he is still not keen about doing coding work. “There are tools that help lawyers to do digital marketing by themselves without having the knowledge to code, and I was able to understand software inventions without having to go deep into the source code,” he says. “I don't think the time spent on learning to code is justified, unless I don't have enough work to do, which is not the case for most lawyers.”

With coding now considered one of the most important job skills of the future, universities around the world have begun offering classes for lawyers. Among them are Harvard University, which is currently offering a course called CS50 for Lawyers, and the University of Minnesota Law School.

Asia is also suiting up for the challenge – and starting them young in Singapore, where a news story in the July 10, 2019, issue of the Straits Times said that coding classes will be given to all upper primary pupils in Singapore beginning in the 2020 schoolyear, as announced by Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

Maybe not everyone is excited about these developments. But the facts remain: Coding courses designed for lawyers are out there. Lawyers themselves have attested to the benefits. Technology trends such as blockchain, smart contracts and artificial intelligence are out there as well, causing criminals to find new ways of doing harm. If a lawyer wants to do his best for a client, it will not hurt him if he learns the inner workings of these technologies.

So what has a lawyer got to lose?


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