Whether legal practitioners should learn to code is a subject that has been under heavy debate for the past few years. I have been to countless events where the matter has been discussed and to say that opinions are polarized would be an understatement. Some people are of the opinion that programming is an obsolete skill that exclusively should be carried out by those that truly understand it, while others wish to know what happens under the hood of all the applications we use in our daily lives. But the question on everyone’s mind is: can learning to code objectively make you a better lawyer?
The answer to this question is not binary. Whether knowledge of syntax can help you in your career as a lawyer, is highly dependent on which field you are active in and to what extent you work with innovation. I.e. the difference between working as a consultant for a tech-company and a prosecutor is significant. These two practices use two completely different ways of working and skills that potentially could give the prosecutor an edge in their line of work would not necessarily translate well if you were consulting for tech-companies. The prosecutor could very well be in an advantageous position, compared to other prosecutors, by just being able to use computer tools whilst the consultant be faced with the challenges of giving advice regarding that specific tool. Therefore, a deeper understanding of the logic behind said computer tools could give the consultant an advantage over other consultants without such knowledge. However, one thing all lawyers have in common is that they would all benefit from the usage of machine learning, document automation and other technologies that are designed to aid with mundane tasks, thus allowing the lawyer to spend their time on qualitative legal work.
I once heard an interesting analogy given by an old-school legal practitioner. The person in question was faced with the question of whether lawyers need to learn to code or not. The person used the car industry as an analogy and claimed that, even though the mass-manufacturing of cars completely revolutionized how we function as a society, there were only a handful of people who knew how to manufacture cars. What I took away from this was that the lawyer was fine with being a passive consumer of cars; letting others do the innovation as long as they themselves can utilize the technology. To some extent, I agree with this statement but it still left me perplexed as to why someone would actively avoid learning something new, especially something that I believe is one of the central pillars of our modern society. I did some pondering, mainly on the car analogy and on the different people within the legal sector I know and the impact they have on innovation within said sector. I concluded that everyone does not need to learn to code, but if you wish to be at the forefront of technological innovation and push new innovations you need to learn to code. Because, who were the people powering automotive innovation and monetarily benefiting from said development? Naturally, the ones who knew what was going on under the hood of the car. So, the question is not whether you should learn to code or not, the question is where you wish to position yourself in legal innovation. Do you want to be a consumer, or do you want to be one of the few people pushing the industry in a new direction? Being either a consumer or a creator is fine and is completely dependent on the other, but the fact is, both types of people will be required in the not so near future.
When talking about coding it is also important to note that there is a big difference between syntax literacy and being able to code safety protocols for nuclear power plants. Merely understanding programming logic and the ability to communicate with your client in a language that they understand is a skill that puts you in an advantageous position. Therefore, it is safe to say that there are different levels of understanding. Which level you need to be on to gain an edge, highly depends on what you wish to achieve. If you wish to code AI-related programs that automates your firm’s legal work, the level of programming you must grasp will naturally be higher than if you simply wish to be on the same page as a client and understand the basic concepts of their product.