I'm an attorney - should I learn to code?

Generic image of code that is commonly used and often scares people who can’t code from actually doing so.

Up until I was 30, the only exposure I had to code was the Spice Girls fan website I ran when I started high school. I built it with the help of Microsoft Frontpage and free website hosting. My taste in music changed, I went to law school and forgot about all those Spice Girls hits. But after 10 years as a litigator, I learned to code, went through the Techstars startup accelerator and now run a legal tech startup. I learned as a way to pass time, but often wonder whether it’s something other lawyers should do. Coding is not for everyone, just as being lawyer isn’t, but below are some reasons that should encourage you to think about writing your first lines of code.

You will become a better lawyer.

There is a surprising amount of overlap between the skills required of a good developer and a good lawyer. Both jobs require insane amount of attention to detail. Typographical errors in code will break a script and in law, they’ll definitely lead to a partner chewing you out, if not some kind of unintended consequence. Both forms of writing share a sense of style — there is beautiful code (not mine), just as there’s beautifully drafted contracts and pleadings. Learning to write clearly so that your intention is explicit rather than implicit, and using definitions to reduce repetition without sacrificing readability, are concepts common to both forms of writing. As a result, when you learn to code, you reinforce and improve the skills used in legal writing, and in turn become a better lawyer.

You will diversify your very narrow skillset.

For most people, there are diminishing returns to becoming an even more knowledgeable expert on the rule against perpetuity. There are very few people for whom being the expert in the field is what distinguishes them in the market. For the majority of us, our state of knowledge is such that we’re considered experts when compared with non-lawyers, but generalists when compared to other lawyers. Given that most of us aren’t going to become the Harvey Miller of bankruptcy law, once you’ve reached a certain level of expertise, there’s less and less for you to gain from learning more and more about the Bankruptcy Code. Lawyers are good at learning on the fly, so it makes little sense time to learn about something that is not marketable, and will never be required to be answered on the spot.

Most attorneys are very good at … well, being attorneys.

Instead, attorneys should develop the skills that they lack. Coding for me, as I’m sure it is for most attorneys, a whole black-hole of an area, and learning a programming language gave me a whole new skill set that is becoming increasingly desired in the market.

You will experience totally new intellectual challenges.

Learning to code is very much like other intellectual exercises, say, like learning a language. It requires a not insignificant amount of time to be dedicated to learning rules through incredibly boring exercises. Both share the same painful introductory phase (you’ll learn to print the words ‘Hello World!’ in the same way you first learn to say ‘My name is Joanna’). But at some point in time, you’ll be able to write scripts that perform a useful real world function, and learning is less about rote exercises than it is about exploring the potential uses of the things you learn.

In that way, learning to code can provide the intellectual challenge and stimulation that might be missing from day to day work as an attorney. Learners are also rewarded as the ability to write functional code comes quickly, and also because they now have the cultural superiority that comes with being to tell other attorneys that they ‘know how to code’.

You will future proof your career.

There’s much written today about the automation of the law. As someone who practised for close to 10 years, and now works to provide technological solutions to some of the problems lawyers face, my view is that there’s still some time before machines will perform the more difficult tasks performed by experienced practitioners. It is certain though, that the more repetitive aspects of the job will be automated, or further automated, if they haven’t already been. This means that there’ll be reduced demand for skills that can be automated and greater demand for people that can facilitate the automation. Attorneys that are familiar with automation systems are bound to be in greater demand than they are now. And in the same way that e-discovery consultants are now a dedicated career path, there’ll very likely be whole careers set aside for those with a hybrid set of skills.

My personal experience was working with hundreds of thousands of rows of Excel spreadsheet data representing payments made to employees. The task of manually calculating the amount each worker was underpaid (as our plaintiff client alleged) was one that the client wouldn’t have authorized given the cost of performing row-by-row calculations or of engaging a consultant. An ability to write a script enabled me quickly learn how to calculate the underpayments in an automated fashion, and gave our client an almost costless way to accurately quantify its claim.

You may become a domain expert in a growing field.

Innovation of course is not limited to automation. As powerful computing machines become more and more ubiquitous, with increasing device ownership and connectivity of everyday objects, the law will be required to enter into new domains, with whole areas of law or branches being developed. Financial services lawyers are now racing to become experts in the Blockchain distributed ledger. The first step for these lawyers is to understand how these innovations work. Lawyers with an existing ability to code, and are already familiar with aspects of authentication, were, of course, in a much better position to understand the innovation. As new innovations develop, and the law catches up to regulate them, lawyers with complementary technical skills will be better placed to skill up and advise their clients.

Legal practice is empowering. It gives you privileged access to the levers that dictate how the world works. It’s also empowering because it allows you to see the imperfections in the system and the ways it can be fixed. Because the ability to code confers the ability to solve problems that would take a human lawyer weeks or months to complete, learning to code has the potential to open up opportunities to fix the imperfections. For me, learning to code led me to a career providing a service that thousands, including many that have few other sources to learn about attorneys, use daily. Others have developed systems to automate the process of disputing parking tickets. There are many more problems that could be solved by code, and right now, not enough coders with sufficient domain expertise to solve them.

If you’re an attorney that has learned to code, or has made a similar transition, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience — feel free to reach out!


Revisiting this post three and a half years later is itself quite revealing. Although the company I co-founded had middling success (it was acquired, but not in a way that made our investors jump for joy), I now no longer practice law and work full-time as a software engineer, strengthening some of the statements above.