Putting Technology in its Place: Are Law Schools the Right Place to Teach Coding?

In 2015, Melbourne Law School introduced a coding course into their curricula. Last year, the University of New South Wales Law Faculty followed suit, launching their “Designing Technology Solutions for Access to Justice” course.

With more law schools set to offer coding courses to get their graduates “tech-ready”, the question arises: is it fit and proper for a legal education to include coding in an already overcrowded curriculum? Let’s take a look at the impact that coding in law school could have for legal practitioners and the future of legal practice.

Black letter law better?

Many opponents of coding in law schools believe that a legal education should stick to teaching the traditional, black letter law subjects. By introducing coding courses into the curriculum, law schools appear to be falling victim to the latest tech fad hype. Coding is dismissed as just another “edgy skill” that everyone thinks they need to be employable.

But according to UNSW Law Professor Rosalind Dixon, a legal education done right “is an advanced degree in analytic thinking, ethical reasoning and policy-based analysis”.¹ The implementation of coding courses into law schools will give students a structured opportunity to reflect on how they use technology, as well as how technology will affect their clients in the future. With artificial intelligence (AI) being widely adopted into the legal industry, we need lawyers of the future to appraise new software programs through a critical lens.

As more law firms and community legal centres invest in building their own customised legal apps, it’s important for law students to freely consider the limitations and implications of new technologies while at law school – and the best way to provide appropriate critique of these new technologies is to have a technical understanding of them.

Coding courses will equip law students with the technical skills of programming and designing information legal systems. But more than that, it will expand the minds of law students by giving them the opportunity to reflect on how new technologies will affect the legal profession.

Techno-legal future

If, as some argue, the principal purpose of law school is purely vocational, then the above analysis is moot. However, ignorance isn’t necessarily a good – or cheap – thing. Law firms already have software programs which allow lawyers to put smart contracts together without needing to know a single line of code.

Automation technologies enable legal practitioners to quickly assemble even the most complex legal documents without needing to have any prior programming knowledge. So learning coding at law school seems unnecessary if lawyers won’t need to code in the future because automation technology will do all the heavy lifting.

However, lawyers of the future will be at an advantage if they have a working knowledge of new technologies: they will be able to evaluate what technology best suits their clients’ needs. Lawyers who speak the coding language can independently troubleshoot programs that aren’t working, saving law firms the cost and time of hiring an external provider for assistance.

To prepare law students for the brave new tech world that they will inherit, it’s essential that law schools train them with ways to think critically about the technologies that intersect with the law.

¹ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-02/prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-unsw-study-law-hass-atar/9390698

Yenée Saw is a writer and legal editor in the Thomson Reuters primary law team. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and is currently completing her final semester of Law. Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, she volunteered at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service as well as the Welfare Rights Centre. Yenée also had a short summer stint at a property law firm where she assisted an A-list celebrity with their conveyancing.

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