What I Learned from Coding for Lawyers

Coding for lawyersYou become a better problem solver by solving a lot of problems. In theory, a more experienced legal professional becomes a better problem solver. They’ve experienced the clear, common paths to address clients’ needs. They’ve tackled those crazy outlier circumstances that might turn on a buried statute or vague case law interpretation. They’ve completed the job, closed the client file, time and time again.

Lawyers’ common path to problem solving usually goes like this: Get a massive amount of facts dumped on you (read: intake interview), determine what problems exist that the client knows about or not (read: issue spotting), formulate a plan to apply the law to the issues (read: case evaluation), and execute the plan (read: combine the facts and law to produce the goal of addressing the issues).

Beyond a saturation point?

Each of these steps involve engineering knowledge, experience, and even cleverness to be the most effective client advocate. Or as Rule 1.1 demands, the reasonably necessary “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation for the representation.” But lawyers, especially solo and small-firm practitioners, remain limited in resources to apply to these problem-solving steps. We try to find the work-reward balance to operate a profitable business. However, there are only so many hours in the day. So, what might improve our problem-solving success, ergo more client satisfaction?

In a recent Legal Evolution blog post, Bill Henderson praises BigLaw’s onboarding of innovative thought leaders to build what appears to be a proactive innovation strategy in the delivery of legal services. Bill points out:

In 2018, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, thanks in part to the analytics team assembled by Theo Epstein, but also aided by Major League Baseball’s largest payroll — $168 million. It turns out that superior knowledge and management is nice, but when it’s combined with the most resources, it’s pretty hard to beat. The same dynamic is likely to hold true for the 183 law firms vying for the world’s most sophisticated and remunerative operational work.

I immediately thought, that’s great for the Red Sox, but what about my hometown double-A team? That is, the solo and small-firm practitioners who make up the majority of the legal profession. How are they capitalizing on the advancements in #LegalTech to embrace innovation and put those resources to work? Or do the core technologies surrounding computers, communication networks, and even artificial intelligence remain a mystery? Are they a non-existent third leg to the knowledge and experience supports keeping attorneys’ competency relevant?

For example, the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center’s 2018 Legal Technology Survey Report shows only 59 percent of solos and 58 percent of attorneys in firms of two to nine lawyers use cloud computing for legal work-related tasks. Thirty-three percent of solos and 51.2 percent of those in firms of two to nine attorneys have data retention policies in place. Additionally, when asked if they use password management tools, only 26.6 percent of solos and 22.9 percent of those in firms with two to nine attorneys did. Interestingly, 70.1 percent of solos and 63.2 percent of those in firms with two to nine attorneys don’t make use of this security measure.

What barriers are keeping these numbers low? And consistently low year after year for the most part. Is our profession’s resistance to innovative applications and solutions a product of opposition to change? If so, maybe a nudge is all some need. Opening a door to accomplishments in LegalTech and other FutureLaw areas. Shining a light on tools that are helping lawyers become better, more efficient problem solvers.

I’m coding? I’m coding!

Such a nudge was what I hoped for when I saw the session “Coding for Lawyers – Learn to Code in 60 Minutes” at this year’s LSC Innovations in Technology Conference. Matthew Stubenberg, Associate Director of Legal Technology in the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, and William Palin, Access to Justice/Technology Fellow at Harvard Law School, walked the group of 50 or so through an interactive training session on computer programming. We used a language called Python, which can make algorithms, web scrapers, Twitter bots, and document automators.

The course was intentionally labeled for “ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS WITH NO CODING EXPERIENCE who want to better position themselves in the quickly evolving legal market.” I knew the session would be limited to some computer programming basics. However, I hoped the true takeaway would nudge participants to embrace innovation and encourage curiosity. Achievement unlocked!

On the surface, I learned basic elements of coding with Python. In this case, building a simple program to evaluate how speeding ticket points impact the driver’s licenses of potential clients. A larger lesson came in experiencing a new language – albeit a computer language. This demystified the technology enough that I wanted to learn more. Just like disassembling a machine to understand how it functions, an hour of coding sparked a curiosity. It reminded me of the need to create that nudge of inquiry and seek out new problem-solving tools. And, importantly, to take further initiative to understand and better apply the tools.

Lawyers can be innovators, big and small

While I may be rehashing the ongoing debate on law school courses teaching coding. Or perhaps offering perspective on the yes, no, maybe, or ‘not the question’ arguments in the “should lawyers learn to code?” discussion. I hope that lawyers will take a <br> (that’s a coding joke; a br is a line-BREAK in HTML) to explore a different set of skills.

Each time we tackle problems for new clients, we have an ethical duty to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Sure, being versed in Python like a computer science major isn’t required. But we should be conversant in using innovation to find new solutions. However, that doesn’t always mean through technology. Applying new concepts to old processes may be just the pivot we need to facilitate change.

Allocate time to be creative and explore tools that might benefit your practice. Dig deeper to understand them. Ultimately, be nudged into discovering that changing how we solve problems is what makes us a profession. It’s the value our clients want today and in the future.

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Mark C. Palmer
As Chief Counsel, Mark leads professionalism programming through the statewide mentoring program, collaborating with stakeholders from Galena to Cairo. Mark also supports the development and delivery of educational programming to lawyers and in law schools. When not in the office, you will likely find Mark and his wife busy raising their twin daughters, enjoying his passion of traveling and eating around the world, and training for his next half marathon.
Mark C. Palmer

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