But does this mean that the best way for lawyers to professionally futureproof is to learn to code?
There are lots of reasons other than ensured professional survival why a lawyer might want to learn to code:
- If you understand the coding process, you’ll likely be able to get your head around the facts of a technological dispute more quickly than a lawyer without that background
- It’s satisfying because there is always an end result, whereas 90% of the time in law the answer is ‘it depends’ and you rarely get to see the end product of the contract you drafted or the proposal you advised on
- If you act for tech clients, you’ll understand them better
- It’s a different way of thinking to law – it’s a fun creative outlet that can recharge your brain and gives you new ways of looking at information
- It’s a similar way of thinking to law – it is logic and reasoning and problem-solving on steroids.
But futureproofing is the big one – differentiating yourself in a crowded, shrinking market of legal jobs and making yourself eligible for the new types of roles that will exist for lawyers in the future.
Richard Susskind explains that while technology will diminish the need for the traditional legal adviser, new types of jobs will eventuate, including those with titles such as ‘legal knowledge engineer’ (which seems to already exists at Pinsent Masons) and ‘legal process analysts’. That is, the people who create the systems that do the automation.
You can see how employees with these skills could make a law firm’s future more sustainable. Instead of a pricing race to the bottom on drafting of employment agreements, what if your law firm was to create an automatic employment agreement assembly program? It could then licence it to its corporate clients, giving the clients peace of mind it would be updated by the firm should the law change. Clients would only need to pay for personalised attention by a lawyer when a complex situation requires it.
Whilst some universities are adapting their law degrees to prepare students for this new market, like Melbourne Uni's Law Apps Juris Doctor subject, many law students are taking it into their own hands to learn these skills.
Ferguson Ryder is a Juris Doctor student at Melbourne Uni teaching himself to code. He spends two hours a week on SoloLearn, an online community of coders that teaches a wide range of coding languages. Ferguson has chosen to start with Python 3.
He finds coding a great mental break from law school. Why?
Legal analysis is very holistic whereas coding is very sequential. As a lawyer, we are trained to approach a novel factual situation and consider possible outcomes. When coding, you have an end result and are putting together the building blocks to get to that goal.
But his main goal in learning to code is to differentiate himself from other legal graduates:
I think lawyers of the future will be different. There will always be tasks that lawyers are equipped for that a computer cannot handle, such as the articulation of a persuasive argument or the interpersonal communication with a client. But many of the tasks lawyers complete, such as legal research, document preparation and management, can be either enhanced or completely managed through the use of technology. I want to be one of the lawyers who knows how to design and manage those processes.
He’s not alone. Gilbert + Tobin is teaching all its lawyers how to code smart contracts.
But is it coding per se that lawyers should be learning, i.e. a specific computing language needed to string together instructions for a computer to execute?
Or is it just computational thinking that lawyers need to master? That is, the ability to break a problem down and express the solution in a form that a computer can understand and evaluate.
Once that is mastered, there are ways for lawyers to create apps without being fluent in code themselves. Neota Logic allows non-programmers to develop, test, and implement applications. Marvel lets you create a prototype app using pen and paper and then put it together to show your programmer how you want the app to work. Law firms can partner with providers like Kira Systems or Settify and make use of others’ automated platforms.
And there are other new skills that lawyers can master to futureproof and differentiate themselves. Or improve the law more generally.
KWM is teaching its lawyers design thinking (once they recover from that dumpling, doughnut and bagel food coma!)
We’ve written about lawyer-turned-UX strategist Eloise Burge who uses UX thinking and design thinking. She reflects on the similarities between law and UX (user experience):
In UX Land I get to do all that stuff that I loved and was the corner stone to being a lawyer like identifying problems and crafting lateral and creative solutions but now everyone leaves happy! I still get to pull apart issues to identify exactly what the problem is, research it ‘til it haunts my dreams, analyse my findings from every angle and devise solutions and strategies to meet all my client’s needs but this time there are no winners and losers!
This is refreshing, as user experience has never been a dominant concern of the law, be it stratospheric pricing, long court delays or hundred-page court judgments. Indeed, as US lawyer Peter Vandenburg notes,
.. law was supposed to be the original crowdsourced content – for the people by the people. Today, law is like a version of Wikipedia that (1) lacks search, (2) has a different layout for every article, and (3) requires eight years of training and $200,000 or more before you can click “edit.”
A generation of lawyers concerned with the user experience could only be positive.
And don’t forget about data science. Automated platforms don’t just require someone to tell the computer what to do. Someone needs to sort through the data to create the algorithm that the computer ultimately uses. Pauline Chow is a lawyer who has also trained in coding and data science. She imagines a world where innovation in text analysis and review of unstructured data can mean that legal reasoning and precedents can be analysed as easily as numbers.
We could soon be in a world where a graduate lawyer’s first year was not spent pushing trolleys, compiling research memos and doing discovery, but looking at the firm’s clients’ problems with fresh eyes and a multi-disciplinary toolkit.
Coding could be a big part of that. But it is not the only way.