Should Lawyers be Coders?
Scratch, Python and C++, three of the world’s most well known coding languages, may not be familiar to many lawyers. In recent years, the coding phenomenon has taken the world by storm with coding being touted not only as “the most important job skill of the future 1Lydia Dishman , Why Coding is Still the Most Important Job Skill of the Future” Future”(14 June 2016) <https://www.fastcompany.com/3060883/why-coding-is-the-job-skill-of-the-future-for-everyone> (accessed 27 August 2019). but also for its benefits such as creative and logical thinking. Recently, it was announced that from 2020 coding classes would be made mandatory for all upper primary school children in Singapore. 2Hariz Baharudin , Enrichment classes on coding for all upper primary pupils next year” The Straits Times (10 July 2019) <https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/coding-to-be-made-compulsory-for-all-upper-primary-pupils-next-year> (accessed 27 August 2019). If we had to choose one essential skill for future lawyers, coding would tick all the boxes for a future proofing skill.
So should lawyers be coders? On the face of it, lawyers and coders are strange bedfellows. Lawyers are not known to “move fast and break things”, which the coding culture epitomizes. 3Clive Thompson, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World (New York: Penguin Press, 2019) at p 3. Quite the contrary, the orderly nature of law seeks to resolve differences and to heal relationships, hardly what you would associate with rule breakers. At a deeper level though, there are broad similarities between lawyering and coding, such as the application of logical thinking and problem solving techniques.
But what do we mean by coding? Literally, coding is a process of giving written instructions to a computer to carry out a specific function. 4Rob Percival, Confident Coding: Master the fundamentals of code and supercharge your career (Great Britain & United States: Kogan Page Limited, 2017) at p 15. To allow humans to give instructions to the computer, different computer languages were developed. 5Ibid. To learn how to code using, for instance, the Python language, one can take courses, watch videos or learn from books It is in this sense that “ is commonly understood.
However, a wider perspective of coding entails going beyond learning how to code. For example, a “Coding for Lawyers” course introduced by a few professors in Europe and the United States teaches law students how “to think about [ relationship with new technology and technology experts”. 6Fenwick, Mark and Kaal , Wulf A. and Vermeulen , Erik P.M., Legal Education in a Digital Age: Why ‘Coding for Lawyers’ Matters (August 7, 2018) at p 30. Lex Research Topics in Corporate Law & Economics Working Paper No, 2018-4; U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-21. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3227967 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3227967 The course focuses on “understanding the basic concepts and power of coding”coding”(such as the pros and cons of blockchains and smart contracts) from a multi disciplinary angle, rather than the nuts and bolts of how to code. 7Id. at pp 5 and 27.
The Four Possible Model Skill sets
What skills should lawyers develop to thrive in the age of coding? As a starting point, let’s look at four possible model skill sets:
- Lawyer as developer
- Adapting to the changing nature of practice
- Deciphering future laws
- Using legal technology effectively
A note of caution, it is not practicable for a lawyer to adopt all four skill sets. A lawyer should choose the model(s) that best fits his or her strengths and inclinations, practice area, client needs and time available.
Lawyer as Developer
The first model skill set, lawyer as developer, is perhaps the most difficult to achieve given the complexity of serious coding. Nevertheless, some lawyers today would already have picked up coding in their university days or at an earlier stage of their education. A number of lawyers may even be actively coding while practising law. From a commercial perspective, learning to code may give lawyers a competitive edge, in terms of providing value added services to their clients through, for example, a website chatbot or an app. 8Supra, n 4 at p 12. Presumably for the majority of lawyers, learning to do serious coding is not something they can set aside time for, given the demands of legal practice. Realistically, for many lawyers, a basic understanding of what coding is and its applications would suffice.
Adapting to the Changing Nature of Practice
In an age of digitalization and technology, legal practice will evolve with the use of technology and lawyers will need to adapt to these changes. Some practice areas may be driven by blockchain technology (e g the proposed pilot of electronic bills of lading in shipping practice), 9Lester Wong, “Parliament: Singapore to launch pilot for digitising shipping documents” The Straits Times (4 March 2019) <https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-singapore-to-launch-pilot-for-digitising-shipping-documents> (accessed 27 August 2019). while others by the use of AI (e g document review software in corporate practice) Online dispute resolution will also change the way certain types of disputes are currently resolved It is important for lawyers to understand how their practice areas will be affected by the relevant technology and to be able to adapt to these changes by, for example, developing inter disciplinary knowledge to gain a competitive edge by addressing their clients’ needs holistically. 10Greenberg, Elayne E. and Ebner , Noam, “What Dinosaurs Can Teach Lawyers About How to Avoid Extinction in the ODR Evolution” (January 17, 2019) at pp 44-5. St. John’s Legal Studies Research Paper No. 19-0004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3317567 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3317567 (accessed 27 August 2019).
Deciphering Future Laws
With the advent of emerging technologies which will transform multiple industry sectors, it is likely that future laws will be drafted with reference to these technologies, for example, AI, blockchains and smart contracts Interpreting such laws will require lawyers to have a good understanding of the relevant technology Issues of legal liability arising from the use of robots and AI will also require lawyers to understand the problems of attributing fault in light of the specific nature of the relevant technology.
Using Legal Technology Effectively
Most lawyers will use legal technology in one way or another in the course of their practice. Some types of legal technology (e g document assembly software) will require lawyers to develop expertise in “ the automated system by exercising algorithmic thinking Algorithmic thinking, which essentially entails developing a step by step set of instructions to solve a problem, 11Paul Curzon & Peter W McOwan The Power of Computational Thinking (London: World Scientific Publishing Europe Ltd., 2017) at p 4. should not be alien to lawyers in fact, lawyers apply algorithmic solutions regularly by developing or applying legal frameworks to their client’s case.
Lawyers need not be serious coders to future proof themselves, but as some commentators have pointed out,“the ability to understand and communicate with coders is a necessary skill for the lawyer of the future”. 12Supra, n 6 at p 5 The model skill sets proposed in this article offer lawyers an opportunity to think beyond the traditional paradigm of the practice of law and assess how they can acquire the necessary skills to carve out their niche in the age of the algorithm.
Author: Alvin Chen
First published in the September 2019 issue of the Singapore Law Gazette.