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Programming Law

by: Noah Waisberg | May 13, 2011
3 min read

Marc Lauritsen, in his thoughtful talk at Ignite Law 2011 "Apps for Justice--Code to the Rescue," argues that law schools should teach students how to program legal apps. He feels this presents "a quadruple bottom line": (1) law students would pick up a valuable skill, (2) lawyer (graduates of these programs, presumably) would have a more prosperous and satisfying career, (3) the (underserved) beneficiaries of the newly created apps would get more and better access to justice and (4) law schools would be teaching their students a valuable skill. The talk is worth watching, especially as it clocks in at just over 6 minutes. Some points prompted by it:

  • Law Practice Should be Coded. Many aspects of legal practice (1) are repeatable, (2) follow known rules and (3) require details done right. These are programming opportunities. Where these characteristics are present, there is the potential for software to do lawyer work faster (software is quick!), better (properly-programmed software should apply all relevant rules and not miss things an undertrained, overworked or time-pressured lawyer might) and cheaper (fixed costs of programming are high relative to low variable costs of running the software; creating software only makes sense where it can be "cheaper" than having lawyers provide equivalent-quality work product). Never fear lawyers: most legal issues require individual attention and software will generally take away the worst parts of your practice, leaving you with a greater proportion of interesting thinking work.
  • Teaching Coding is Teaching Rigorous Thinking. Coding requires rigorous logic. Among other things, law schools teach rigorous reasoning and logic. The thought process of getting a computer program to correctly solve legal problems is parallel to that of solving a legal problem. Accordingly, coding legal problems meshes well with other things law students are learning.
  • Lawyers Should Work with Programmers. Lauritsen advocates teaching law students to code. This is a good idea. A complimentary approach would be to have law students work with computer programming students to create programs. Both sets of students would pick-up experience in collaborating with people with different skill sets. And the teams could tackle trickier problems. Some legal processes ripe for programming require limited programming expertise. But others require extensive computer science skills.

Lawyers should use practice-specific computer programs in their work much more than they currently do. Teaching law students to code is a good step in making this happen.

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