A couple of weeks ago, I embarked on the long journey of learning and mastering computer code for several reasons. First, as I approach a milestone birthday (and work through the concomitant midlife crisis), I’ve felt compelled to try something new. Second, since I so frequently criticize many of the legal tech startups for not understanding what lawyers need, I thought that I ought to put my money where my mouth is and see if I could do better. Finally, as I’ve written previously, there’s nothing like doing something that you suck at to make yourself a better lawyer.
As part of my journey (which has included a weekend course and a few tutorials at Code Academy and other websites), last night I attended a Learn Ruby MeetUp at one of the incubators here in Washington D.C. I expected that there’d be someone leading the class, perhaps running through snippets of code or introducing different methods. But coding isn’t law school or CLE – and instead, there were just a bunch of random people — from gurus who code in Ruby as part of their day job to programmers learning a new language to novices like me and some even lower on the skill scale (hard to imagine) who’d basically read about Ruby online but never tried it. After introductions, people opened up their computers and started working on projects, moving into groups and sharing their screen with others or asking for help from some of the more experienced attendees. There wasn’t much I could do – I wasn’t working on a program – so I opened up my terminal and text editor and started to work my way through some exercises that I found online (pathetically, it took me 15 minutes to get started because I could not remember certain command line controls and was too intimidated to ask for help at first because it’s such a basic question). Still, by the end of the night, I felt that I had made some progress – and I also felt as if I were part of something.
But I also wondered: why don’t lawyers ever learn or work this way? I could never, in a million years imagine sitting around a table with a half dozen other lawyers, tapping away on a brief and asking a colleague to take a look at what I’d written and suggest ways to make my argument stronger. Or completing responses to discovery requests and yelling out, “Hey, does anyone have a good argument for objecting to this demand?”
Of course, most lawyer spaces aren’t built for collaboration. The 1776 space consists entirely of long tables, end to end and conference rooms with more large tables. By contrast, most lawyers toil in solitary confinement with the office door shutting out the world. Listserves are helpful of course, but they don’t have the same immediacy as holding up a computer screen in front of a colleague’s face and saying “have a look at this.”
Lawyers don’t like to look stupid either. It’s hard for us to ask questions or admit that we don’t know how to do something. That’s no surprise, of course; after all, law school’s favorite pedagogic tool, the Socratic Method trains us that learning comes from answering questions rather than asking them. By contrast, the programmers I observed didn’t have these restraints – and as a result, they were able to ask the more experienced programmers questions, get the answers to various problems and move on.
More than anything, solos – especially new solos – could benefit from this kind of collaboration – particularly at a time when new grads are launching firms with little practice experience. Yet but for ad hoc versions – list serves or the handful of bloggers willing to help younger lawyers — the legal profession doesn’t have the equivalent of the programming meet up in the legal profession, where lawyers show up with a laptop or iPad and a project – a brief, a blog post or anything – and work alongside colleagues, trading ideas. It’s a far better way than the empty exercise that CLE has become for the profession to meet our obligations under our Professional Code to educate tomorrow’s lawyers.