AI & Law: Lawyers As Coders

Debating the lawyers as coders topic

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Key briefing points about this article:

  • There is tremendous interest (and rancor) about the proposition of lawyers-as-coders
  • Some assert that the future of the law and especially via AI will radically impact attorneys
  • As such the argument exists that lawyers would be prudent to learn about coding
  • Counterarguments are that lawyers should stick with their knitting and let coders code
  • A recent webinar by Northwestern University is used herein to explore these tradeoffs


Lawyers and coding.

The odds are that you’ve seen headlines stating that lawyers-as-coders is the latest and hottest trend.

If you’ve had a chance to mull over the notion, you are likely to have landed into one of three dominant categories. There are those lawyers that completely buy into the lawyers-as-coders proclamation and believe in it, fervently so. Meanwhile, some lawyers think the lawyers-as-coders is utterly preposterous and not worthy of even an iota of thought. The third category consists of those lawyers that are uncertain.

The fence-sitters are unsure of how valid the contention is.

Questions haunt them in the sense that if they do proceed into transforming themselves into being a lawyer that is a coder, maybe they’ve made a career-limiting choice and didn’t even know it. On the other hand, the classic FOMO (fear of missing out) provides a powerful allure, namely that if other lawyers are jumping into coding and programming, perhaps those not doing so will miss the boat.

Nobody wants to be the last non-coding lawyer and be caught adrift of everyone else.

Ongoing chatter about lawyers as coders has especially ratcheted up due to the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is becoming more feasible overall and particularly more pronounced in the field of law than just a few years ago.

Headlines blare incessantly that human lawyers will be augmented by AI-based legal reasoning systems, meaning that lawyers will seemingly have no choice but to work hand-in-hand with AI systems. Furthermore, some predict that AI will eventually be proficient on an autonomous basis and ergo able to proffer legal advice and act in the capacity of a human lawyer. All in all, this seems to broadcast the warning that coding is coming toward the practice of law, whether you want it to do so or not.

For details on this and other AI and law topics, see my book entitled “AI and Legal Reasoning Essentials” at this link here:

Discussing Intelligently Lawyers-As-Coders

The lawyers-as-coder topic came up at an excellent recent webinar entitled “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Lawyering and Law Firms,” which was superbly led and moderated by legal scholar Daniel W. Linna Jr., Senior Lecturer & Director of Law and Technology Initiatives, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law & McCormick School of Engineering. Speakers included Stephen Poor, Partner and chair emeritus, Seyfarth (law firm), Mari Sako, Professor of Management Studies, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Hyejin Youn, Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations, Kellogg School of Management.

The notion of lawyers-as-coders is a matter that I’ve frequently been asked about and have forthrightly commented on, so I’ll provide herein a recap gist of both the remarks made during the Northwestern University sponsored webinar and add my commentary too. Rather than listing the pro’s and con’s in separate lists, I like to weave together the advantages and disadvantages involving the topic and find that this provides a more engaging dialogue-like conveyance of the thorny debate.

Buckle your seatbelt and get ready for a roller coaster ride.

First, one of the most common and powerfully exhorted claims in opposition of lawyers-as-coders is this: A lawyer is paid to know about the law, and ought to devote every waking professional moment to being the best lawyer they can be. Under that perspective, you would be hard-pressed to show that expending time and attention toward doing programming or coding is enhancing or extending your capability to practice the law. In short, coding is far afield of lawyering and will simply dilute energies that should be solely devoted to the law.

Not to be outdone or drowned out by this seemingly persuasive argument, here is the equally vocal and ostensibly powerful claim in favor of lawyers-as-coders: The future of the law will involve automation, and any lawyer worth their salt has to face the truth that being comfortable and versed in tech is an absolute necessity for survival. Getting into coding puts a lawyer at the forefront of the tidal wave and positions them for riding the wave and possibility standing out as a leader in the legal profession and not merely just another everyday law-only myopic lawyer.

Which argument resonates most for you?

Well, since lawyers are trained and experienced in making legal arguments, the aforementioned top-line indications showcase that there is a substantive case to be made on either side of this matter. This illuminates a crucial facet that out-of-hand dismissal of lawyers-as-coders would seem to be remiss, and likewise blindly accepting the lawyers-as-coders mantra would also seem shortsighted.

As they say, your mileage will vary, depending upon your circumstance and predilections.

Let’s add some more points:

  • A lawyer that codes are half-in and half-out, they are unlikely to be a good coder (producing buggy software), and they are potentially undercutting their lawyering activities.
  • A lawyer that learns about coding does not need to become a coder per se and instead can leverage their gleaned grasp of coding to foster the infusion of tech into the practice of law, opening doors in their law firm for career progression or sparking them toward a LegalTech startup.
  • Time spent by a lawyer to become a coder is presumably unbillable and thus a money drain rather than a money booster. Let coders code, let lawyers do lawyering.
  • Law firms are increasingly striving toward adding new legal services and those lawyers into coding will best be able to strategically shape and drive those efforts, bolstering the future revenue of the firm.
  • You might as well say that coders ought to become lawyers, yet another misguided mismatch, plus just as lawyers would be insulted at a programmer that thinks they overnight can be a lawyer, the same can be said of lawyers falsely assuming they can simply overnight become a coder.
  • ABA stipulates that lawyers are to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education,” which lawyers-as-coders is obviously abiding by that stated requirement. End of story.
  • Too many lawyers doing coding in a law firm will be a nightmare, like herding cats, and likely produce lots of straggler apps that have little rhyme nor reason all told.
  • And so on.


A final comment is that the word “coding” is perhaps misleading, though handy as a shorthand. Lawyers that learn about the use of Machine Learning can use software packages that do not require conventional programming. In that sense, lawyers-as-coders might be better represented by stating lawyers-as-tech-savvy.

That would be more sensible but sadly is not nearly as catchy a moniker.

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Copyright © 2021 Dr. Lance Eliot. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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