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Ideas for Complying With the Legal Professional Code From Computer Coders

by Carolyn Elefant on May 12, 2014 · 30 comments

in Ethics & Malpractice Issues, Future of Law, Questions & Advice, Tech & Web

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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.

  • Brandon S. Thomson

    Great post! I am a law student, 3L, and I also have been attempting to learn basic coding skills. So far, I have learned enough to make some basic changes to my law firm’s (where I clerk) website. Do you find that taking the time to learn to code has been worth your while as a busy solo lawyer?

  • Susan Cartier Liebel

    Brandon, every lawyers should know some basic coding even if it is just to be able to add/delete/modify their website/blog. If I were you I would get a WordPress blog and start playing with it and learning how to maneuver within WordPress. You’ll get some handy skills and you won’t be sorry. It’s kind of liking taking a typing course in high school. You hated it while you’re doing it and yet it will become the one skill that will serve you no matter what you do in the future. (Yes, I took typing in high school!)

  • Brandon S. Thomson

    Thanks Susan for the advice!

  • http://www.esiattorneys.com Kelly Twigger

    Great post, Carolyn. I would second any effort to set up a collaborative environment like the one you describe — maybe most effective by practice area? My old firm fostered some of that type of exchange, but what you are suggesting would be a huge advantage for clients. It can sometimes be very hard to see the forest for the trees when you’ve been working on a matter/project/case for such a long time.

  • http://www.injurylawyerdatabase.com/ Byron Warnken

    Good post and good for you. I want to learn to code, but I don’t want the learning curve. I’m not very likely to get it by osmosis. Most lawyers, in my limited experience, have a similar weakness – the inability to simply admit, “I don’t know.”

  • Bill

    Carolyn and Kelly:
    I will take the contrarian view (on the collaborative environment issue, not on coding). (My perspective is that of former large firm partner, solo now for about 15 months, in a niche practice serving mostly large and midmarket clients, and mostly competing against large firms.) Each of our firms (solo firms included) is a business, and a competitive business. Why, exactly, would I want to improve my competitors’ skills, or work product, or ability to service their clients? I hope that my ability to do things better (and, less importantly, less expensively) will help me keep my current clients, and help me get new clients. (Obviously a dramatic oversimplification.) So, why, again, help them improve, unless they retain me to do so?
    I firmly believe in the need to train and mentor younger lawyers. That is what law firms, and practice groups within law firms, and CLE, and specialized bar associations, are for. Same for having another set of eyes to review your work, or someone to bounce an idea around with. When I see that someone spent a few years at a particular firm (actually, one of about 10 particular firms), I know that chances are they are well trained our area of law.
    But, I have a finite number of hours in my week and month. And one of the reasons I left my large firm was to cut down on the non-practicing hours (Recruiting Committee, Opinion Letter Committee, partner’s meetings, mentoring my associates, etc.etc.etc.). So, beyond the competition thing, why spend hours collaborating on someone else’s client matters?
    Bill

  • Christopher Miller

    Hi Carolyn, it is admirable that you want to try to pick up this new skill. I caught this bug about two years ago. I remember trying to start with Ruby and Ruby on Rails. Quite frankly that was a mistake for me and it might be for you as well. When you are trying to learn to code I think the worst thing you can do is be fumbling around with the tools before you can even write a line of code. After a reset i went back to basics and just decided to learn PHP, MYSQL, and Javascript. You can do a lot with those languages. And when you know them it is that much easier to then jump to another language like Ruby and a framework like Rails. Jumping right into Ruby is like a newly graduated lawyer jumping right into the lead chair in an antitrust trial.

  • Christopher Miller

    Hi Bill, I was struck by your point of view. If we could bring this back to the coding world, your point of view is akin to that of the proprietary software vendor. The proprietary software vendor writes programs that do useful things for people and they are going to get paid for it by those people.

    That seems to be your point of view as a lawyer. You have good knowledge in a field of law that can help people and you want to get paid for it. That is perfectly valid, I also like to be paid for my legal work.

    But on the flip side, there is a fascinating segment of the software industry that writes computer code to do useful things and then simply uploads the code for free for all to see and use. This is the open source community.

    The sheer amount and utility of computer code that is open sourced is just unbelievable. Why would people take time from their lives to do this? Probably for the recognition, maybe for the love of just writing computer code that people will use. So while you take the view that you are going to help people with your knowledge and training as long as you are paid for it, there is definitely a competing point of view out there.

    But I see you mostly took the point of view that you wouldn’t see great benefit to this sort of collaboration among competing lawyers. Point well taken. But what would you think of technology making it easier to collaborate within firms, as Carolyn described?

  • Bill

    Christopher:
    There are certainly lots of areas where collaboration makes perfect sense. As you pointed out, open source software is a great example. Although I will point out that companies like Red Hat base their business on not collaborating…
    In terms of inside law firms, I wonder if this isn’t another solution in search of a problem. In my former firm (1000+ lawyers, 25+ cities in several countries), it was fairly easy to collaborate using existing off-the-shelf knowledge and document management and sharing tools, as well as email, WebEx, telephone, and TelePresence. And, in my own experience, email and phone worked very well most of the time.
    In my first response, I also didn’t mention the privilege issue, which to me seems an insoluble problem in unaffiliated lawyer collaboration on real matters.
    Bill

  • RG Neale

    I think that the virtual “labs” space you describe is what a lot of the new social media legal sites, like Mootus, are trying to achieve. They are taking a cue from the collaborative Open Source software world.

    I started learning Python because I need some more efficient legal tools and decided that the best way to get exactly what I want is to program it myself.

  • Christopher Miller

    Bill, What sort of programs are used to actually allow people in different firm offices to work together in producing documents, ie, contracts, briefs, etc. Are you just shuttling documents with track changes on back and forth via email or is there another solution in use? Version control of documents is always something that is difficult to deal with.

  • http://legalresearchandwritingpro.com/ Lisa Solomon

    I assume that Bill’s firm was using Microsoft SharePoint, which (as I understand it) allows multiple users to work on the same document, even at the same time (in a Word document, the document is locked for editing only at the paragraph level; changes are synced each time the user hits “save.”). This can be done with users outside an organization using OneDrive or (as I understand it) Sharepoint Online for Office 365 Small Business. Small firms that don’t use Office can use tools like Google Docs, etc.).

  • Edward Wiest

    Isn’t the real message here that the culture of legal practice (whether transmitted via the law schools, firms, or the disciplinary rules) needs to change as much (if not more) than the business of legal practice?

  • Bill

    Yes, SharePoint was the formal tool, and there was a lot of simply email a Word document with track changes to the three or four or five people working on the matter. And, really, it worked pretty well.

  • Bill

    As a research tool I can see Mootus having some utility, although you would still have to research the issues yourself for quality control, since you don’t really know much about the people posting. (Remember that New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago of a dog typing on a computer, and the caption “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog?”) And maybe a company without counsel, or an in-house lawyer, would like the “free” legal advice. But I can’t see how a lawyer in a firm (solo or otherwise) can benefit from posting free answers to legal queries. If the answer is “marketing,” Counsel Connect in the late 1980s tried the same thing; law firms found almost a zero conversion rate by answering the posted queries. But, I am genuinely interested if very skeptical to hear how any of these collaborative platforms can result in real, paying work for outside counsel.
    Bill

  • http://legalresearchandwritingpro.com/ Lisa Solomon

    I don’t understand why lawyers in the same firm would use an inefficient method to collaborate on documents when there is a better, more efficient method available. I specifically mention lawyers in the same firm because, in those circumstances, the firm can implement a policy about how collaboration must be handled and can mandate training to help ensure everyone has the technological skills to comply with the policy.

  • Christopher zmiller

    I’m curious too. If you had the formal tool in SharePoint, why was email used? Perhaps not everybody knew how to use it, too hard to learn, etc? Is email just that much simpler? I would hate to be the person in charge of merging changes from multiple contributors via email.

  • Bill

    For the same reason my very large firm was just moving off of Office and Word 2003 when I left early last year: cost and convenience. “Good enough” is called that for a reason, and when a small subset of partners is making the decision on a large capital expenditure, and the incremental improvement doesn’t impact them or the firm bottom line much, or quickly, good enough wins. And not just because a major technology upgrade in a 1000 lawyer firm is an eight figure commitment, with a very fuzzy ROI.

  • Christopher Miller

    I myself like the joke of the new lawyer querying a listserve for a sample
    product liability complaint for the new case they just picked up. I think you hit the nail on the head though. A lot of today’s legal tech start ups, which are able to attract large capital investments somehow, are geared toward lawyers giving away legal advice to potential clients for free in the hope, however nebulous, of getting a paying client out of it.

  • Bill

    For two or three people bouncing around a document, when we had a few hours or days between turns, email was just as easy. Also had the advantage of being available anywhere, even devices or locations that wouldn’t support a larger document management system. And emailing a Word document, while not as elegant as SharePoint or another platform, was fast and stable and worked.

  • RG Neale

    I see sites like Mootus as a collaborative platform for lawyers, much like the big room Carolyn describes in this article, where someone asks “can you think of any other objections to this discovery?” or stack overflow for programmers. I don’t see it as a way to get new business.

    Just like programmers in a labs-type of space (physically or virtually), I wouldn’t just take someone’s word for it — I would research the suggestion before committing to it. It’s easy enough to confirm whether the suggestion is BS or helpful.

  • Christopher Miller

    BTW Carolyn, the command line can be a tough nut to crack. But once you start to get it, it can be very rewarding and help increase productivity a bit. If you are struggling with it, check out Zed Shaw’s Command Line Utility at http://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html. He also has some free online courses that I have used to learn Python and some Ruby as well.

  • Christopher Miller

    I am going to check Mootus out. My experience with most collaborative sites like this for lawyers is that they tend to be empty. That tends to be the downfall of these sites, not enough traction to make it useful.

  • myshingle

    You’re right – Mootus is kind if like Stack Overflow. But the in person component is nice too – helpful to md if someone can stand over my shoulder to peer at my screen

  • myshingle

    Yes – tech culture is very different. Not all better either but collaborative aspects are worth noting.

  • myshingle

    Yes, that is definitely a problem of many of these lawyer platforms.

  • myshingle

    To be clear, I’m not a fan of the giving away advice on spec in Hope of a client. I don’t need a platform for that – I can generate free clients on my own! However, the collaborative approach Im referencing doesn’t necessarily involve free work or competitors helping each other – but just a forum to bounce ideas off others or have a fresh set if eyes to look at a problem

  • Paul Spitz

    It’s been a while since I worked in a multi-lawyer firm, but back in the day, you could find collaboration in that environment. Whether you still can, I don’t know. It’s really in the area of solos and smalls that we need this kind of collaboration and support.

    And there are open-source analogs in law. For example, docracy.com is a place where lawyers can share documents. Some are pretty high quality, too.

  • Paul Spitz

    Ha, this reminds me of an amusing story. When I first started to practice, in 1986, we had IBM PC’s on our desks, running DOS. This was a firm of about 30 lawyers, in Boston. After about a year or two, the woman that ran our IT sent a memo out that there was a new way to communicate on our system — we could send messages to other people in the firm over the computer, and they could read the messages on their computer. Needless to say, it was a complete flop. It just seemed so much easier to walk down the hall and speak directly to the person, or if they weren’t available, write out a short note and leave it on their chair.

    So much for e-mail.

  • Alison Monahan

    One very useful feature of WordPress for learning HTML (which you should try to learn – it’s not very hard and is extremely useful) is that you can switch between Visual and HTML mode in the text editor. So, if you want to know how to add an image, or how to make bullet points, it’s all right there, waiting for you to look at.

    But even just being capable at using WordPress to install a template, pick and install some plugins, and navigate the menus and widgets puts you way ahead of most attorneys!

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