Love.Law.Robots. by Ang Hou Fu


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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”.

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.

I believe the answer is a strong no. Lawyers need to know what is possible, not how to do it. Lawyers will never be as good as real, full-time coders. Why give them another thing to thing the are “special” at. Lawyers need to learn to collaborate with those do code.

— Patrick Lamb (@ElevateLamb) September 9, 2022

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.

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 HandsPhoto 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.

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.

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.

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 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🦄!


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?

#Lawyers #Programming #LegalTech #blog #docassemble #Ideas #Law #OpenSource #RulesAsCode

Author Portrait Love.Law.Robots. – A blog by Ang Hou Fu

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I have been following the Centre of Computational Law at SMU with keen interest. They're the guys who illustrated the history of Singapore law with pretty graphs.

Phang Goh and Soh “THE DEVELOPMENT OF SINGAPORE LAW: A BICENTENNIAL RETROSPECTIVE” at paragraph 62/page 32. (From Celebrate 200 Years of Singapore law with pretty graphs)

They've also been involved in a pretty nifty combination of “Rules as Code” and docassemble.

Brand-new #legaltech
✅ Open Source
✅ Runs on #RulesAsCode
✅ Understands exceptions
✅ Answers legal questions
✅ Gives explanations in English
✅ Gives all valid explanations for each answer
✅ Integrated with @Docassemble

— Jason Morris💻⚖️🇨🇦 (@RoundTableLaw) June 3, 2021

I've heard a lot about Rules as a Code and I am curious how it could apply to real world applications. So I am definitely going to give this a run and see how far I can go with it.

As such, I was pretty curious to see the Centre in the news. Unfortunately, it's not really about those cool applications of computers and law I mentioned, but something dearer to every Singaporean's heart — jobs. It features SMU's new four year Computing and Law undergraduate course.

BSc (Computing & Law) | School of Computing and Information Systems (SMU)Singapore Management University (SMU)

This excerpt from the news article tells you most of what you need to know about the course.

Students take modules from both the university's law and computing faculties, with an even split of modules across the two fields. The course starts off focusing on areas where there is significant overlap such as intellectual property. Prof Lim said that when they graduate, students will be able to work in various places like tech or legal firms, in roles that may not exist yet.

There are some interesting things written between the lines, so let me extract them here for you.

First, Students graduate with a Bachelor of Science (BSc), not a Bachelor of Laws (LLB). This means they can't apply for admission to the bar when they graduate. It's possible to progress to a JD in SMU Law, which would allow you to practice, but that would mean 6 years of studies instead of the usual 4.

Second, the article appears to concede that graduates might not be able to find work which takes full advantage of their skills.

If you would like to know what jobs exist in LegalTech in Singapore right now, you can take a look at Legal Tech Jobs:

Legal Tech Jobs filtered for jobs with location “Singapore”. By the way, that single job does not require a computer science degree.

In all, a course combining law and computers like this is going to require (1) bold students, and (2) students who have bold and supportive parents.

But maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. This isn't for lawyers who want to code. They are for coders who want to law. And if you want to look at it from that perspective, many things start to make sense. Take a look at the mix of subjects in the compulsory part of the degree: from (as of June 2021)

Some knowledge of intellectual property law is going to be helpful for someone building solutions. Contract law, company law and the like are going to be beneficial for someone who is going to start a company, even if it isn't strictly in LegalTech. Torts, data protection, criminal law? Good to know, and will be very useful if you were thinking about Access to Justice. I am less familiar with the Computing Core section, but they seem more focused on creating products and running software development than I expected. Throw in some project management experience, and you have a unique candidate who can hit the ground running.

Would I take a course like this when I was 18? I don't think so. Students would generally expect to follow a well-trodden path to a career they already know. As a law student, it would be a lawyer. Maybe, as a backup plan, an in-house lawyer.

This is still an alternative career, but in an age of disruption, being able to think outside of your silo would be excellent preparation for a long and fruitful career. If I could speak to my 18-year-old self, I would tell him to carefully look at this.

#Singapore #LegalTech #Law #Training

Author Portrait Love.Law.Robots. – A blog by Ang Hou Fu