Legal Tech Certifications: Do lawyers need to learn to code?

The skills that today’s generation of legal leaders have learned have evolved and tomorrow’s legal leaders will need to rely on new skills adapted to our times for success. These skills will stray somewhat from a straight-forward traditional legal knowledge education and to create this 21st century legal education, providers are working with practitioners and legal firms.

Providers offering bespoke legal tech education

Ten years ago, legal tech skills were the realm of legal nerds with a niche knowledge of coding and technology. Today, legal tech has become a widespread buzz word, legal tech events attract thousands of legal leaders of all ages and legal educators have jumped onto the legal tech bandwagon. Current legal practice course providers such as BPP offer a Legal Technology Innovation and Design module that teaches “an area at the forefront of new skills sought by recruiters [which] focus[es] on building the innovation skills that future solicitors will be expected to demonstrate, including understand[ing] legal technology (e.g. AI, Blockchain, Big Data, and Automation) develop[ing] project management skills and techniques, learn[ing] skills to design technology that responds to problems and engag[ing] in design thinking and process mapping vital in the legal workplace.”

There has also been a rise in more innovative law departments offering more fit for purpose bespoke legal and technology courses. As Alex Smith, Global RAVN Product Lead at iManage and co-author of the book Do Lawyers Need to Learn to Code? A Practitioner Perspective on the ‘Polytechnic’ Future of Legal Education says, “the growth of these initiatives designed to prepare students for the increasingly technological nature of practice reinforces the increased importance placed on cultivating a system of ‘work-ready’ graduates”.

One such course is the Innovation, Technology and the Law LLM at the University of Edinburgh, attended by Ekaterina Harrison, postgraduate student and highly experienced banking & finance lawyer. She chose the course because of her long-standing interest in digital technologies and how people use them. Digital assets, tokenisation, behavioural analysis and other innovations are opening up new opportunities and changing finance products.

“Lawyers like me,” Harrison says, “need thorough knowledge and understanding of the digital space”.

She studies alongside working and was drawn to the flexible approach of the course, which is both part-time and online, allowing her to continue with her main practice areas of banking and finance.

What skills are required by lawyers of the future?

Smith in part agrees with Harrison, writing that in his years of working in legal innovation, his observations are twofold.

“The first is the need to enable the application of learning and skill-building as early as possible to enhance workplace performance; the second is the need to have a core base of legal knowledge”, concluding that “future commercial lawyers need to experience a tertiary education much more akin to an apprenticeship” and that “lawyers of the future will interact with the technology, not write it”.

In other exchanges, he was more forthright and suggested that while tomorrow’s lawyers could benefit from skills such as understanding data, how data is building up, how to measure using data and how to investigate in data (eg eDiscovery or contract discovery) as well as better visualisation of end product skills, learning to code would not yield as clear-cut benefits. Instead, he favoured the idea that lawyers, in general, could stand to work more closely alongside other professionals. More specifically, while lawyers should definitely equip themselves with enough knowledge to be able to work alongside tech developers, product managers, UX, and data scientists, he didn’t believe that lawyers needed that level of professional skills themselves.

That is certainly something highlighted by Harrison as a benefit she has seen in her work, directly attributable to the course. “I think lawyers could learn a lot from how software developers work”, she says. “I mean, the adoption of agile practices. Not all principles of agile working are applicable to legal work but a lot could be borrowed and tailored.” She also mentions a specific example of where new technical skills were coming in useful.

“For example, I can do simple coding in Python. When I worked on a big document migration project, my basic programming skills helped me to analyse thousands of lines of information in Excel. If I had not known how to interpret the data, I would not even have attempted it. But I knew and it was a great benefit for the project. I would identify programming and project management as technical skills that can potentially turn a good lawyer into a great one”.

Using tech skills to the client’s advantage

Another lawyer we spoke to made it clear that she believed “understanding data is key for business – if you can access and use your own data, you can develop a competitive advantage over your competitors”. Clare Weaver, a legal consultant and previously in-house counsel, now specialises in using legal tech to her client’s advantage. After two Oxford University Online courses from the Said Business School in Bitcoin Strategy and AI, she was able to re-skill to a more tech-orientated skillset. This allows her to be able to advise clients in both the FinTech and tech sectors, in particular that knowledge of how AI works and what applications can be used.

Weaver too speaks of how helpful it is for lawyers to be able to understand how natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning works. She reiterates Smith’s point that she doesn’t think lawyers need to learn to code but “should understand how developers create and build products, whilst guiding the user experience side of things which is most important of a product is to be useful”. “For me”, she says, “that’s the most interesting point – how to adapt products for use by different users and why adoption differs in different communities”.

But do lawyers need to learn to code?

No, seems to be the general thought. As Smith summarises, tomorrow’s lawyers “should be developing curiosity, humility, growth mindset and willingness to work in truly cross-functional teams” or, as he concludes in his book, “developing their interpersonal skills, comprehending the emerging user-centric business world, engaging with their curiosity and creative problem-solving skills, listening carefully to their clients’ needs and openly engaging with the changing world within which their clients operate and the leadership dynamic that governs that operation”.

In other words, a legal tech qualification isn’t ever going to make you a tech professional (and physically being able to code isn’t necessary) but getting a good grounding and understanding of the tech space generally may well help you be a better future lawyer in a world that is now definitely digital.