16 August 2017

Lawyers learning to code? To do or not to do, that is the question!

Published on 16 August 2017
 
 Jane Hogan

By Jane Hogan

I am a lawyer, and a knowledge manager with over 20 years’ experience in the legal industry. And last year, I took 3 months away from work to attend a full time course to learn how to build websites from scratch, using the underlying code – HTML, CSS, JavaScript, SQL and Ruby, etc. To say that this was a stretch for me, is an understatement! I started practising law when it was primarily paper based, and well before the many transformations that have rolled through legal practice, including the start of it all - getting computers on every lawyers’ desk.

So what did I get out of this experience of sitting next to some very young people staring at a screen all day trying to find the missing curly bracket in my code? And would I recommend it to other lawyers?

What did I learn from learning to code?

The first thing which I got was the luxury of satisfying my insatiable curiosity. My desire to learn to code was an extension of my pre-existing interest as a knowledge manager in how technology works, and how it can be used in law. In that sense, I’m pretty atypical. I have an extremely technical bent, and a lot of experience choosing, designing, and implementing legal systems. Learning to code was, for me, an extension of this personal and professional fascination with technology and the law. 

Secondly, it has dramatically improved my overall digital literacy. I have a much better understanding of how technology – and the tech industry - works. Not only have I learned how to code, I have learned how the web works, how servers work, how databases worked, what APIs really are, etc. I have had to negotiate my way through a whole new series of problems and learn a whole new vocabulary – servers, deployments, DNS, etc. Many of these things aren’t about code at all – but are about understanding the broader digital environment. Coding is one thing. Getting the tool up and running is another entirely! 

I also understand far more about the complexity of the code environment. I quickly learned that what we outsiders see as “code” – a single mysterious thing that others (developers) do – is actually far more nuanced. Just as learning law requires you to think about what law you would like to learn and specialise in, learning to code raises the inevitable question of choosing which coding language to learn. Should it be HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Ruby, c#, c++, python, SQL – or any of the many other quirkily named languages? 

Interestingly, although there are many, many languages, I have realised that learning to code involves learning, not just one, but two different skills. The first skill, is learning the syntax of the particular language – how you express yourself in that language. This part is really fiddly and hard. Get one small thing wrong – and absolutely nothing works! 

The second skill is understanding how computers generally ‘think’ or reason about things – which is very, very different (for now!) from the way we humans do it. While different from the way we think, interestingly, there are similarities across the languages in the concepts and patterns used. In learning to code in any language, you are also learning the underlying concepts and patterns common across many of the languages. And interestingly, you can learn this logic without writing any code at all, by learning to write in a thing called pseudocode – which extrapolates the programmatic logic away from the expression of it in a particular language. The Viking Coding School describes it as:

"...the art of turning a problem into code without even knowing how to code"

Should all lawyers learn to code?

So given my experience in learning to code, would I recommend it to other lawyers? Like a true lawyer, my answer is “well it depends”. It depends on what you’re seeking to get out of the experience, the degree of your technical bent, and how much time you have – because learning to code takes a lot of time and, like learning any skill, a lot of practice, practice, practice!

If you see learning to code as the innovation silver bullet for law, I think you’re going to be disappointed. The problem with this thinking, is that it doesn’t adequately appreciate the complexity of the digital environment, and the deep skill and knowledge of those within it. It’s also really hard to learn to code, and really hard to learn all of the associated things which enable you to get a digital product up and running. If I were to create a digital product, I would definitely work with professional developers – and would actually engage a whole team of professionals skilled in the digital domain.

But that doesn’t mean that I’ve wasted my time learning to code. I can build small proof of concept prototypes. And more importantly, I understand programmatic logic which enables me to see the law, and legal practice, in a very new light – it’s given me new insights about the practice of law. And insights, are the heart of innovation. Even if I can’t fully realise those insights myself through code, I can understand what I could do, and far more easily explain it to another, more skilled, developer.

To this extent, while learning to code is not an innovation silver bullet, it is a path to innovation for those with the right technical bent. There may be other paths which are potentially less arduous – like design thinking (which I highly recommend) – but understanding code, and more broadly, understanding how the digital machine works, brings a different perspective and set of insights. It might just be the perspective you are looking for. At the very least, it will help you appreciate the complexity of the digital world around you, and give you a new found respect for the knowledge and skill of creators of that world. It will also enable you to communicate more effectively with those professionals that operate in it. It’s also, just plain fun. So if you want to learn to code, go ahead and give it a go!

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If you’d like to read more about Jane’s experience of learning to code and her experiences during her coding course, please click here to be taken to her blog: JaneGoesDigital.

If you would like to try your hand at a little bit of code, Jane recommends trying the free online code courses here at codecademy and suggests starting with HTML and CSS to get a feel for what coding is like.

If you would like to understand more about the logic of code, without learning the syntax, Jane suggests considering learning to write some pseudocode.

And, don’t forget to save-the-date for Jane’s live discussion on “To Code or Not to Code – Is that the question for lawyers?” as part of the CLI breakfast series from 7am in Brisbane (November 13), Melbourne (November 14) and Sydney (November 15). If you would like more information about these events, please contact us.

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About the Author

Jane is a lawyer, knowledge manager and novice web developer. She has worked for over 20 years in the legal industry firstly, as a practising lawyer, and then as a leader of knowledge management in firms. Jane is passionate about the potential for technology to change the way in which lawyers practice law and users of legal services experience legal services. Jane has explored this passion through her work, and by studying:

• information management at UTS – which includes a strong component of user-centred design; and
•web development.

Jane is a legal designer and recognised innovator. She has won the Australian Legal Business award for Innovation for a tool which she designed and built, and was a finalist in Australian Lawyers Weekly Box-breaker award.

Jane can be contacted on and you can follow her coding adventures at:

•Email: janegoesdigital@gmail.com
•LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/hoganjane
•Twitter: @janegoesdigital