Why lawyers should learn to code, but not for the reasons you think
Maarten Truyens is part of that rare breed of lawyers who first picked up programming as a child and never let go. He went on to have a long career as a solicitor at an international law firm and as an in-house counsel in several financial institutions, all the while leveraging his programming background to improve efficiency and service delivery where he saw fit. In 2016, he quit his job as an in-house counsel to focus on developing ClauseBase, an advanced document drafting platform of which he is currently the CTO. With his dual background of programmer/lawyer, he is often asked whether lawyers should learn to code as he did.
Coding courses for lawyers seem to be mushrooming like never before. Law firms are incentivizing their lawyers to learn how to code, universities offer interesting courses to students, and targeted online tutorials are available free of charge. The question that inevitably pops up whenever the merits of these courses are discussed is “should lawyers learn to code?” Naturally, the only answer, as ever, is “it depends”.
First, having talked to quite some lawyers who took those courses, I would like to issue a word of warning. As usual in hype cycles, good ideas build up some momentum, but then get exaggerated up to inflated expectation peaks. I’ve scratched my head when seeing coding courses that advertise to learn everything you need to know to submit your legal app to Google’s and Apple’s app store in less than a day.
Do not believe these claims. You may be lured into thinking that mastering the syntax of a programming language (what is a “for-loop”? how do you iterate through an “array”?) is all you need to know to take the legal world by storm. It’s not. In fact, it‘s probably the easiest part of the mountain you have to climb. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you have to dive into the documentation of several “frameworks” and “function libraries” that you have to integrate into your code in order to produce real-world results, from fairly mundane stuff (e.g., calculating the last day of the month, or sending an email) to more advanced tasks like converting a text into a PDF file.
And that’s just the programming language. Learning how to develop production-quality software that can be used by customers in the real world will take many months, because you will also have to learn some diverse skills outside the programming language. Do you know how to design a database? Apply cascading stylesheets on a webpage? Create a shiny, animation-driven user interface? Deal with online security? Scale your service for hundreds of users?
It should come as no surprise that lawyers who take these courses can easily get disillusioned once they leave the walled garden of the introductory course. Suddenly, you stumble over all those ancillary requirements you had not thought about before and end up in a technical jungle quite different from the predefined path that was so smoothly prepared by the course instructor.
Still, lawyers should not be discouraged by this warning. Quite the opposite, in fact. I see two main reasons why learning how to code is definitely recommended.
A first reason is that not all software should be client-facing production-quality. Even when you should probably leave the development of a client-facing app to an IT specialist, there are many internal development projects that do not require a high level of polish, yet can help you streamline your internal processes. Think about all the huge tables you create (e.g.: compliance questionnaires, data retention terms overviews, etc.) for which you instinctively feel that MS Word or Excel may not really be the right tool. All the contracts that look similar (but never exactly the same) between client files, and for which the wheel is therefore reinvented every time. The old-fashioned internal knowledge base that looked so appealing but is now gathering digital dust because it‘s just a bit too limited. Or all the billing and reporting duties in your office that make you lose incredible amounts of time and seem to scream for automation.
A second reason is that learning how to code, no matter which programming language you use, will prepare you for the range of “no-code” and “low-code” programming platforms that are appearing everywhere on the market.
In my opinion, the most significant benefit of those platforms is not that they shield you from traditional code by offering an interactive drag-and-drop style. Rather, they avoid the friction of the ancillary requirements, by presenting you with a nicely integrated environment, allowing you to focus on the actual steps your software has to take to do something useful, so kind of like a larger version of the walled garden that the coding courses promised you. By experimenting with these no/low code platforms, you will start to implicitly think in terms of algorithms, data structures and digitization in general. You will probably not notice it, but these platforms will alter your brain for the better. Lawyers who had a positive experience with development and automation, no matter what kind, will more quickly get up-and-running in new kinds of software (such as our own contract drafting platform) that they never encountered before. We truly believe that no/low code platforms will continue to play an important part in the legal sector, because they foster a “computational thinking” type of mindset and, by avoiding the frustration of all the ancillary programming requirements, prepare lawyers for tomorrow’s digital world.