Changing the Legal Paradigm: Should Attorneys Learn to Code?
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As blockchain technology rises in popularity, two sentiments become increasingly identifiable within the legal industry. One is a growing concern that blockchain will replace lawyers. The second is an eagerness to represent blockchain startups and to establish blockchain practice groups within law firms. Regardless of the truthfulness of each sentiment, they evidence a general understanding within the legal industry that blockchain technology is disrupting the practice of law.

The question is, whether law firms and lawyers are prepared to deal with the changes technology will bring about and to effectively represent clients in the blockchain space? More specifically, whether changes brought about by the implementation of blockchain will require lawyers to learn how to code?

This post will offer a few reasons why attorneys should prepare themselves for technological disruptions such as blockchain. It will also describe the current legal education system and why it conflicts with the needs of the 21st century client. Finally, it will discuss how learning code can prepare future lawyers to better represent companies in the blockchain space.

Why lawyers need to prepare themselves for technological disruptions

The legal industry constantly changes due to advancements in technology. Email and video conferencing, for example, facilitated attorney communications with clients and with one another, e-filing changed how lawyers file court motions and pleadings, and the internet permits attorneys to offer services online. Such technological advancements make the provision of legal services more efficient.

Other innovations, however, such as blockchain technology, are set to change the essence of the legal practice. According to University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor, Wulf Kaal, Blockchain technology will challenge “traditional assumptions, doctrines, and concepts of law and governance.” Thus, it is vital that lawyers, judges, and regulators adapt and equip themselves with skills that allow them to navigate through legal matters and issues arising out of innovative technologies. Without such skills, the legal industry cannot meet the needs of the blockchain industry and risk stifling innovation.

Why the legal education conflicts with technological innovation

Traditional legal education is not preparing attorneys to face changes brought about by technological innovation. In the article, Legal Education in the Blockchain Revolution, co-authored by Wulf. Kaal, Mark Fenwick, and Eric P.M. Vermeulen, they state that “key lawyer characteristics and lawyers’ core skill sets in the existing legal education and regulatory framework are incompatible with the demands on lawyers of the 21st-century.” The article explains that “the majority of lawyers in both civil and common law legal systems tend to be reactive, waiting for Congress/Parliament to provide new legal initiatives and legal guidance.” However, the unprecedented speed of technological development demands proactive lawyers who can help their clients navigate through unregulated sectors and unclear legal frameworks resulting from disruption.

They further state that the “key skills emphasized in the existing law school education include precision, in-depth analyses and syntheses, substantive legal knowledge, and policy considerations,” which are skills that are or might be obviated by disruptions in the legal field brought about by technology such as blockchain.

Thus, Innovation necessitates a change in legal education. Law schools must introduce into their curriculums courses that provide future attorneys with a set of skills allowing them to better represent clients developing new technologies, and drive innovation by training students to identify and take advantage of the opportunities that arise from the development of new technologies.

Law students should develop skills that will prepare them to meet the needs of clients in the technology industry. Practicing attorneys should also educate themselves and learn the necessary skills to meet the growing demand for legal representation in the technology sector. It is vital that both students and practicing attorneys prepare themselves for the possible changes the legal sector will undergo as technological innovations, such as blockchain, become widely adopted.

Why lawyers should learn to code

Because blockchain technology development and adoption comes with possible and imminent disruptions within the legal field, specifically with the implementation of smart contracts, lawyers and law students should understand the technology to deal with any issues that arise from its implementation effectively. Thus, attorneys should know how software engineers use code and coded technological applications in the context of law and the means by which code can be utilized and integrated in legal contexts - concepts that are grasped by learning code.

According to Prof. Kaal, Learning code can help attorneys “develop an appreciation for the exponential rate of disruptive algorithmic technological innovation in the legal industry and the changing role of lawyers in this context.” It could also help attorneys understand why “algorithmic technology applications in combination with big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain technology will continue to change the practice of law and the role of lawyers.” Furthermore, Prof. Kaal adds that because lawyers are increasingly working in interdisciplinary teams with engineers, programmers and innovators, learning code can allow law students to develop the ability “to engage with other professionals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who in many cases have a completely different perception of business, etc. concepts and associated legal problems than lawyers.”

Prof. Kaal teaches a course at St. Thomas University School of Law, where he “develops students’ understanding of the means by which code can be utilized and integrated in legal contexts.” For example, predictive coding and algorithms for legal applications, which benefit the legal industry in areas such as e-discovery, contract drafting, legal research, among many others, are increasingly implemented in the legal industry. Therefore, teaching law students to evaluate “important legal applications of algorithmic technology solutions and explain how software engineers are applying code to legal problems in an effort to provide efficient legal solutions is essential to drive innovation in the legal field.”

During the course, students also develop basic conceptual coding skills that enable them to engage and collaborate with computer scientists, engineers, developers and innovators, helping clients develop solutions in interdisciplinary teams. Moreover, students learn a basic coding framework in Solidity, and the Ethereum Virtual Machine, developing an understanding of smart contracts, which allows students to code them for implementation in practical legal issues.  

There is a discord between the legal services attorneys provide and the needs of the 21st-century client. Practicing lawyers should educate themselves and law schools must change how they prepare their law students to make sure that attorneys have the necessary tools to further innovation. Coding is one tool that will allow lawyers to understand technological changes, collaborate with individuals within interdisciplinary fields, and develop practical solutions utilizing disruptive technologies. Without such changes and without the necessary tools, the legal field cannot provide services vital to the development of innovative technologies.