7 min read

So you want to code? (Lawyer Edition)

Tips and suggestions on how to start coding as a lawyer based on my personal experience.
So you want to code? (Lawyer Edition)
Photo by Arif Riyanto / Unsplash

If you’re interested in technology, you will confront this question at some point: should I learn to code?

For many people, including lawyers, coding is something you can ignore without serious consequences. I don’t understand how my microwave oven works, but that will not stop me from using it. Attending that briefing and asking the product guys good questions is probably enough for most lawyers to do your work.

The truth, though, is that life is so much more. In the foreword of the book “Law and Technology in Singapore”, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon remarked that technology today “permeates, interfaces with, and underpins all aspects of the legal system, and indeed, of society”.

Books — Should an Innovative Lawyer use them?
Books are a tried and tested medium for new learning, but with a new book on Law and Technology in Singapore, is it enough to rely on it?
I wrote more about the book "Law and Technology in Singapore" after I bought it last year.

I felt that myself during the pandemic when I had to rely on my familiarity with technology to get work done. Coincidentally, I also implemented my docassemble project at work, using technology to generate contracts 24/7. I needed all my coding skills to whip up the program and provide the cloud infrastructure to run it without supervision. It’s fast, easy to use and avoids many problems associated with do-it-yourself templates. I got my promotion and respect at work.

If you’re convinced that you need to code, the rest of this post contains tips on juggling coding and lawyering. They are based on my personal experiences, so I am also interested in how you’ve done it and any questions you might have.

Tip 1: Have realistic ambitions

Photo by Lucas Clara / Unsplash

Lawyering takes time and experience to master. Passing the bar is the first baby step to a lifetime of learning. PQE is the currency of a lawyer in the job market.

Well, guess what? Coding is very similar too!

There are many options and possibilities — programming languages, tools and methods. Unlike a law school degree, there are free options you can check out, which would give you a good foundation. (Learnpython for Python and W3Schools for the web come to mind.) I got my first break with Udemy, and if you are a Singaporean, you can make use of SkillsFuture Credits to make your online learning free.

Just as becoming a good lawyer is no mean feat, becoming a good coder needs a substantial investment of time and learning. When you are already a lawyer, you may not have enough time in your life to be as good a coder.

So, this is my suggestion: don’t aim to conquer programming languages or produce full-blown applications to rival a LegalTech company you’ve always admired on your own. Focus instead on developing proof of concepts or pushing the tools you are already familiar with as far as you can go. In addition, look at no code or low code alternatives to get easy wins.

This is what “no-code” should look like — Notion
What do we really want from a “no-code” product? Notion shows we want well designed software which can deliver a big impact in small ways.
It's not a lot to brag about, but with a little pluck and creativity, you can go really far with the tools you already have or are free.

By limiting the scope of your ambitions, you’d be able to focus on learning the things you need to produce quick and impactful results. The reinforcement from such quick wins would improve your confidence in your coding skills and abilities.

There might be a day when your project has the makings of a killer app. When that time comes, I am sure that you will decide that going solo is not only impossible but also a bad idea as well. Apps are pretty complex today, so I honestly think it’s unrealistic to rely on yourself to make them.

Tip 2: Follow what interests you

Muddy Hands
Photo by Sandie Clarke / Unsplash

It’s related to tip 1 — you’d probably be able to learn faster and more effectively if you are doing things related to what you are already doing. For lawyers, this means doing your job, but with code. A great example of this is docassemble, which is an open-source system for guided interviews and document assembly.

When you do docassemble, you would try to mimic what you do in practice. For example, crafting questions to get the information you need from a client to file a document or create a contract. However, instead of interviewing a person directly, you will be doing this code.

docassemble - Love.Law.Robots.
Since I work a lot with docassemble, many of my blog posts deal with my experience with them.

In the course of my travails looking for projects which interest me, I found the following interesting:

  • Rules as Code: I found Blawx to be the most user-friendly way to get your hands dirty on the idea that legislation, codes and regulations can be code.
  • Docassemble: I mentioned this earlier in this tip
  • Natural Language Processing: Using Artificial Intelligence to process text will lead you to many of the most exciting fields these days: summarisation, search and question and answer. Many of these solutions are fascinating when used for legal text.

I wouldn’t suggest that law is the only subject that lawyers find interesting. I have also spent time trying to create an e-commerce website for my wife and getting a computer to play Monopoly Junior 5 million times a day.

The curious incident of playing 5 million Monopoly JR games with Python
My lockdown project goes on its own sojourn through Python multiprocessing programming with interesting, unexpected results.

Such “fun” projects might not have much relevance to your professional life, but I learned new things which could help me in the future. E-commerce websites are the life of the internet today, and I experiment with the latest cloud technologies. Running 5 million games in a day made me think harder about code performance and how to achieve more with a single computer.

Tip 3: Develop in the open

Waiting for the big show...
Photo by Barry Weatherall / Unsplash

Not many people think about this, so please hang around.

When I was a kid, I had already dreamed of playing around with code and computers. In secondary school, a bunch of guys would race to make the best apps in the class (for some strange reason, they tend to revolve around computer games). I learned a lot about coding then.

As I grew up and my focus changed towards learning and building a career in law, my coding skills deteriorated rapidly. One of the obvious reasons is that I was doing something else, and working late nights in a law firm or law school is not conducive to developing hobbies.

Can Contracts be Open Source?
Could time-starved lawyers used to charging by the hour be more like programmers and give out contracts for free?
The answer is that they will when they find a community.

I also found community essential for maintaining your coding skills and interest. The most straightforward reason is that a community will help you when encountering difficulties in your nascent journey as a coder. On the other hand, listening and helping other people with their coding problems also improves your knowledge and skills.

The best thing about the internet is that you can find someone with similar interests as you — lawyers who code. On days when I feel exhausted with my day job, it’s good to know that someone out there is interested in the same things I am interested in, even if they live in a different world. So it would be best if you found your tribe; the only way to do that is to develop in the open.

  • Get your own GitHub account, write some code and publish it. Here's mine!
  • Interact on social media with people with the same interests as you. You’re more likely to learn what’s hot and exciting from them. I found Twitter to be the most lively place. Here's mine!
  • Join mailing lists, newsletters (here's mine!) and meetups.

I find that it’s vital to be open since lawyers who code are rare, and you have to make a special effort to find them. They are like unicorns🦄!

Conclusion

So, do lawyers need to code? To me, you need a lot of drive to learn to code and build a career in law in the meantime. For those set on setting themselves apart this way, I hope the tips above can point the way. What other projects or opportunities do you see that can help lawyers who would like to code?