Thursday, July 22, 2004

What if lawyers became programmers?

Jeff Jarvis predicts, “In the next generation, I think people will learn programming instead [of law] — and that will have a subtle but deep effect on society.”

Jeff’s absolutely right. I’m one of the non-lawyers Jeff talks about; I have a degree, but have not practiced a day in my life. I absolutely loved the discipline I learned in law school, and not a day goes by that I don’t use the background in some way, shape or form.

There’s no question that many see lawyers’ role as Jeff does: risk-averse, contingency-writing, ambiguity-eliminating debate whores.

But I (and, I suspect, many others who got the degree but don’t practice) took a different lesson away from our training: the ability to see two sides to every story, the ability to boil arguments down to their foundations, build them back up with clarity, and then identify strengths and weaknesses in both. I left law school convinced of a few things: black and white scenarios are rare, and grey is where the action is. Unintended consequences are common (and, unless you’re a thrill-seeker, to be avoided by thinking through what you’re doing). Perhaps most importantly, thought and creativity will be rewarded with non-obvious (but often elegant) conclusions.

Now — if Jeff is right and the trend heads towards programming, I suspect that some of those same traits will persist. There’s more than one answer to the problem (i.e., there’s more than one way to code a problem in response to a need), improper QA can lead to disastrous results, and programmers who are creative often come up with elegant and brilliant answers.

Jeff says this of lawyers (and, by extension, what it means for a society of lawyers):

Lawyers are necessarily a suspicious breed. They live by rules. They think in terms of us vs. them. They think contention. They argue for sport. They always think they can appeal to a higher authority. They aim for victory. They are patient.

Now many of these claims could be made of programmers too. But I think the more important point is the underlying goal of law: to maintain the status quo, to be predictable. Programming, on the other hand, is built on a culture of innovation — not knowing what will happen is an intuitive challenge to figure out (and/or shape) what happens next. Programmers embrace the unknown.

Jeff concludes by saying this about programmers:

Programmers are logical. They believe in cause and effect. They believe any problem can be solved if you just find the cause. When they do battle, it’s with a mistake, not a person. They live in the details. They believe in openness and transparency. They also believe in following rules but the rules of reality — what a machine can and can’t do — over the rules man made up. They believe in planning. They, too, are patient. What else?

For me, it’s all about transparency. If Jeff’s right (and I’d like to think he is), then the biggest difference will be a shift from the old-boy’s guild that the legal profession maintains to the open source model that encourages disclosure, rewards iteration, and hides nothing.


  1. Hackers, Lawyers, Society and the INDUCE Act (IICA)

    Jeff Jarvis has a very good post this morning about shifting cultural mores (and/or memes?) (A programmer's society replaces a lawyer's society). As he drops his son off at programming camp, he postulates that we are shifting from a lawyer-centric...

  2. Rick-
    I think you are very right about characterizing the lessons from law school. The action (and real life) is in the grey zone.

    Jeff's attitudes towards lawyers are typical of technically focused people who don't engage in non-technical social or political issues. Real life works with a different set of rules that aren't neccesarily visible or understood by the programmer.

    I'm not sure i agree with you about the goal of law being to maintain the status quo. I think the goal of law is to deal with whatever problems come up and keep society functioning, even when society changes. Law is inherently reactive, and thus gets dinged for not being creative. Its mandate is not usually to be creative! Its mandate is usually to react in a rational way.

    What really needs to happen is that we need to *rely* on law less and more on creativity. We are always going to need law when other social constructs break down or can't be built in the first place.

    I guess if you equating programmer mentality with being creative and proactive, then I'd totally agree. But my experience is that most programmers are just as reactive and narrow minded as lawyers since, like lawyers, most programmers are dealing with real problems under real-world constraints. Lawyers try to defend against problems they've seen before, programmers try to design around issues they've seen before. I'm not sure there's such a profound difference... Creativity is creativity.

  3. chincoteague on my mind (and i've never been there)

    nearing the sea fishing rods in the gun racks