To Code, or Not to Code, That is the Modern Lawyer’s Question

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Over the last two years I have talked around the world with countless attorneys and legal practitioners of every variety, and the question most often posed was, “Do I need to learn to code?” Truthfully, this is a personal decision that is more nuanced than it might appear. Wrapped up in this question is more than a curiosity about SQL and Python — legal professionals want to understand how much tech fluency they need to thrive in the future and what practical steps they can take on the journey to tech competency. 

So, do legal professionals need to learn to code? Not necessarily. Do they need to dramatically level-up their tech competence and fluency? Absolutely! 

Why the fixation on learning to code?

The main drivers in the rise of learn to code inquiries are the double-headed dragon of the proliferation of technology in legal practice and increased competition among law firms driven by increasingly savvy corporate buyers. 

Legal tech became big business

In 2018, investment in legaltech first surpassed $1 billion and just 12 months later the annual investment surged another 25%. While 2020 and quarantine may have placed a slight damper on investment, DISCO’s $100M round and other nine-figure investments and mergers show that legaltech is poised to continue to be big business. This investment means big opportunities for people who have a skill set at the intersection of law and technology and savvy lawyers want a piece. 

Savvy clients 

Over the last decade, corporate clients have exerted increasing pressure on their outside counsel to demonstrate efficiency and their in-house teams to cut costs. New roles called legal operations were added at many Fortune 500 companies. These roles focused on driving pricing consistency and cost savings for legal services. Then in 2017, a global organization called the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) was formed to connect legal operations professionals and further codify the business expectations for legal services. 

Increased competition

Savvier clients expect more from and are comparing their outside counsel across a myriad of vectors, not least of which is cost efficiency, leveraging of technology to drive cost savings, and proactive homegrown innovation. Firms have adopted innovation hours and have built out full innovation hubs in some cases to keep pace of rising client expectations and competition among other outside counsel. 

Is “Should I learn to code?” the right question? 

All signs point to an acceleration of tech adoption within the practice of law and no matter how much some firms and attorneys would like to bury their heads in the sand, savvy clients and increased pressure from peers will pull all firms into the 21st century. And yet, coding is not the only, or in many cases the optimal role for a legal practitioner to play in the deployment and adoption of innovative technology. 

In many cases the amount of time it takes to up skill a legal professional who may have gravitated away from STEM in high school is significant and even a highly competent legal professional may remain substantially less efficient at coding than someone who has built a career around computer science and coding. 

If not learning to code then what? 

In most cases having a working knowledge of how a technology works and the potential issues it may pose or when to employ it is light-years more impactful than getting into the coding weeds. The American Bar Association's model rules on technical competence are a good guide. Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1 breaks down the level of competence lawyers should strive for as follows:

“Maintaining Competence — To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.”

I like to think of the suite of skills a modern lawyer needs in three broad categories: 

  • Technology fluency (aka speak geek): A practitioner should aim to understand the key terms of art and concepts that a given technology impacts and have the ability to speak with technologists in a way that conveys their wants, needs and concerns around using a technology (think more conversational than native-level fluency). 
  • Technology issue-spotting: A practitioner should understand the risks of using a given technology or when a certain situation calls for deploying technology. This should be a well-trained muscle for any legal professional in their area of expertise, issue-spotting just requires shifting to a technical application of the same skills. 
  • Know when to call in an expert: Whatever a legal practitioner’s level of technical acumen, understanding when more technical expertise is required is of critical importance. Much in the way that you would not try to build the economic impact models necessary for a merger filing without a seasoned economist, the same approach should apply when engaging with new or complex technologies. You do not have to go at it alone in the brave new digital dataverse. 

Technology’s ever-accelerating invasion of law shows no signs of slowing, but practitioners have a myriad of options to prepare themselves for the tech-enabled future. If a practitioner really wants to learn to code, go for it! For the rest of us, continuing to educate ourselves on the key trends and terms of art shaping legal technology and arming ourselves with resources and experts to shepherd us on the path of tech fluency is another great option.

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Cat Casey
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