Should Lawyers Learn To Code?

Coding

Few groups within our society are as confident in our intellectual abilities as attorneys. After all, we excelled in our primary and secondary educations, attained high honors in undergraduate studies, tackled the LSAT, successfully ran the gauntlet of law school, and now we are trusted advisors to our clients on a daily basis in a dazzlingly wide array of topics and business specialties—why shouldn’t we be assured in our capabilities? The one subject that still gives many of us pause, however, is mathematics. How many times have we heard (or employed) the cliché “If I were any good at math, I wouldn’t have gone to law school”? It is this occupational math phobia that makes recent calls for attorneys to “learn to code” both welcome and somewhat puzzling.

My career prior to law school was firmly rooted in mathematics. After graduate study in algebraic geometry and algebraic number theory (finding efficient means of identifying rational points on elliptic curves over finite fields, if you must know), I applied these theories for over ten years by putting these theorems and algorithms into code form. This background makes me somewhat unique among lawyers, and I would like nothing better than to see that ratio turned upside down. It is uncontroversial to state today that very nearly every company is at its core a technology company, and more attorneys well versed in both law and technology (and their complex intermingling) is a net good. It doesn’t take much browsing around to find online coding courses that seek to assure tentative pupils by asserting that coding is easy—anyone can do it. But I am here to warn lawyers that the path to being truly competent in law and technology will take more than an hour of dabbling with code—it requires us to face, and at least partially conquer, our math phobias.

No one expects their attorney to prove whether or not P = NP, but a competent lawyer in this field will understand the basics of computational complexity.

Computer science is, after all, tightly coupled to mathematics, and many would go so far as to say it is actually a subset of this field. Code—the human-readable state of software, which is written in languages like C, Ruby, Python, and Javascript—is a highly structured lexical framework that follows strict mathematical principles. To truly understand the mechanics of software, and of computers generally, one needs to familiarize oneself with the basics of these principles. Many of the flaws associated with today’s technology can be traced to a failure to understand or adhere to these principles. And this is not just a technical problem. There is a long list of examples of questionable policies, legislation, and rulemaking in law and technology that can also be traced to these fundamental misunderstandings. One can truly know just enough in this field to do some real damage.

To be competent in the field of law and technology, I therefore argue, means a willingness to tackle these principles at a certain level. No one expects their attorney to prove whether or not P = NP, but a competent lawyer in this field will understand the basics of computational complexity. Technology lawyers will not be expected to solve the Albertson-Chan-Haas Problem (an open problem in graph theory), but they will be expected to understand the basics of computer networks (an application of graph theory).

My point here is not to discourage attorneys from diving into law and technology. Quite the contrary, I would love to see that day when the majority (or at least a sizeable minority) of lawyers can sit down with our clients to discuss, understand, and give competent advice on matters involving technology. The topics that frequently appear in today’s headlines make it clear that there is a great need for such attorneys: Network neutrality, privacy, government surveillance, self-driving cars, medical implants, Internet governance, cloud computing liability, “patent trolls,” copyright and new media models, and algorithmic marketing, just to name a few. To be competent in this field, however, one needs to do more than dabble. Many attorneys will not realize a measurable return on investment necessary. For those folks, I recommend partnering with those more fluent in the topic. But for those intrepid lawyers who can see through to a benefit, I say learn to code, but don’t stop after the first tutorial. Understand Internet routing, but don’t stop at the buzzwords. Law and technology attorneys are desperately needed, but we need competent professionals, not dilettantes.