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programming and the legal profession

This is a weird query, but thought maybe some people who read this forum (especially new yorkers) might have some interesting comments.

A friend of mine is studying for the june LSAT. This weekend, out of lack of anything better to do, and a slight crush on the person studying, I sat down with her and took a practice LSAT exam whilst she did the same. I scored 174 on the practice exam, which apparently is pretty good (the high score is 180.)

I have a few lawyer friends (in Manhattan), and working in a law firm sounds pretty lame (billable hour quotas and butt kissing...bleah).

However, I was wondering if there is any interesting career convergence point between law and software? There's always IP and patent law, but I'm not too into the software patent thing. Anyone here doing any thing that involves both law AND software? Or left law for software? Or left software for law? Any interesting comments would be appreciated.

choppy
Sunday, March 30, 2003

There are some interesting similarities between the fields:  if you squint your eyes just so, you can see them both as being about the selective application of rules to achieve a specific effect.  (=

One possible way to combine the two would be to do some sort of advocacy or even lobbying work (e.g., the EFF).  The only other thing that comes to my sun-addled mind right now would be IP law... and I don't really think we need any more of that going around.

Sam Gray
Sunday, March 30, 2003

LSAT scores are just one small part of an application to law school.  They also look at the type of degree you have and your grades, recommendations from professors, and possibly interviews.

It doesn't surprise me that programmers can get a good score, because of the logical and analytical reasoning on the test.

But to actually make it through law school, you have to do looooooooots of looooooooong loooooooooong reading and writing, which would sicken many programmer and engineer types.

T. Norman
Sunday, March 30, 2003

Actually, there is a area of computing  that really does work with the  law, and there is a growing need.

That area of course is computer evidence.

You have to understand in MANY kinds of legal situations, much of the evidence to day is going to be on a computer system.

In the old days, the law environment people just walked in and hauled out the paper files. Problem is, that now most business now have most of there documents on computer disk.

Hence, court requests for documents and information OFTEN results in that information having to be found in the companies computers.

In any police  criminal investigation for a business today, the first thing hauled out the door is now the computer equipment. Most police force has had these types of departments setup for a good number of years. They all have a computer crime / evidence departments.

However, we are also seeing a growing trend for legal work, and law firms that also need this expertise for working with evidence that they need. Often, a law firm does not have this kind of expertise. (the old days, they just requiest files!). Often, someone has to go the that client, and get that requested information. (and there are varying degrees of cooperation in these cases also!!). Further, when edvidanc is submitted to the law firm, they often need help in extracting the data.

There are even law firms that specialize in gathering computer evidence. They need people and I would guess that some legal training in this regards may be of help.

Now, this was not really what the original question was, but I think it goes without saying that in the general course of business dealings in our modern world, the computer is now a big part of court evidence these days.

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Kallal@msn.com

Albert D. Kallal
Sunday, March 30, 2003

The convergence bit comes into play if one is in interested in both law and software.

There are very few people who understand both, and the number of such people are very few.

As a profession I do see a good future for a person with both degrees.

Berkeley is supposed to be big on Technology Law...

Prakash S
Sunday, March 30, 2003

"There are very few people who understand both, and the number of such people are very few. "

- damn, really sleepy...

Prakash S
Sunday, March 30, 2003

In my experience, being a lawyer and a software architect...

NO convergence. None whatsoever.

It's bizarre, but the roots seem to be:
1) lawyers are very, very, very conservative. They only change the way they do business very slowly. The current state of the art in the legal profession is using Word to type documents instead of a typewriter. Any tech push is done by legal staff, who meet resistance every step of the way.

2) Law firms are partnerships. This means that any expense incurred by the firm effectively comes out of the pockets of the partners. So if you want to push an IT solution, you had better be able to show a direct dollar benefit.

3) There is a large brick wall around the legal profession. Anything outside doesn't count. One of the reasons I will not practice law - despite seventeen years of employment and eight years in the software development arena, if I joined a law firm specializing in Software patents, I would be a first-year associate along with all the newbie 24 year old law school grads. 

4) (I think) perception from the outside that lawyers are so damn smart that they must know what they're doing and it's not up to us to bug them for IT help.

Those are solely what I've gathered while trying to figure the whole thing out; I'm not sure I've got a grip on it yet. I *do* know that any time I look at anything associated with the legal field (whether as an attorney or as an IT specialist) I'm looking at a pay cut.

Philo

Philo
Monday, March 31, 2003

I'm a lawyer who left practice and is now making a living as a database consultant.

Regarding jobs that combine both, Albert K. is probably right that there's a lot of work in discovery proceedings required for analyzing data that's in digital form.  I don't think think many of the programmers who do that are lawyers, although a little bit of legal knowledge might help. 

As far as lawyer jobs go, my attitude is that most people who go into law thinking they want to specialize in some particular area (environmental law, internet law, international law, family law) find out that to a large extent the work that all lawyers do is similar.  Sure the subject matter makes some difference, but it's not like you're going to like doing computer law if you wouldn't like being a lawyer of some other sort in the first place.

There are two big differences between programming and practice law that come to mind right away. 

First, legal rules are nothing like the rules of a programming language.  Legal rules are malleable.  There are almost always competing rules that yield different results, and deciding which rule will be applied in any given situation requires weighing and balancing the facts of a case and the policy or purposes behind the rules.  Lawyers virtually always work deep in a world of vagueness and ambiguity, a world where I think a lot of programmers would be uncomfortable.  Legal work is all based on matters of interpretation of rules, with closer ties to literary interpretation than to the sort of logic used in programming.  In programming the rules are not generally open to interpreation: if you follow the rules your program works, if you don't the compiler gives errors or your program has bugs.

Second is a related issue:  Because legal issues turn on issues of interpretation, there isn't necessarily any objective answer to the question of what is the correct rule to apply in any given situation.  Instead, we get the next best thing:  a judge, who has the authority of Rule of Law, does his or her best to make an impartial judgment.  It's really amazing how what a judge says goes, either because people respect the Rule of Law that judges represent or because people respect the threat of force that the government provides to back up our judge's rulings. 

Still judges are people, too: some are smarter than others, some may be more or less good at preventing subconscious motivations from influencing their rulings, some may have political beliefs that influence every fibre of their thinking, etc. 

The short of it is, though, that judges are the ultimate arbiters of legal issues, but at the same time it's entirely possible that judges get things wrong.  (And other times when it's not clear what rule applies at all, in which case the judge essentially gets to make a new rule or "make law".)  There are many close cases where it's not clear how legal issue should be resolved.  In an adversarial system the lawyer for each side will do their best to make the best arguments for their client, but in the end a judge will have to choose one side or the other.  In most cases, the judge must decide one side is right and the other is wrong, they're not generally free to say, "Well, I can see the point on both sides so I'm going to decide on a compromise" (that's what judges will encourage parties to do themselves in a settlement agreement, with the threat that if the judge has to decide things it's going to be a complete loss for one or the other of the parties). 

So it's entirely possible to make an amazing legal argument, one that required incredible thought and creativity to think up, yet lose a case.  The judge may not be smart enough to see the worth of the argument, the argument may lose not because the judge thinks it's a bad argument but because the judge decides some fact applies that makes the argument inapplicable, or any one of a number of different reasons may result in you losing even though you do an amazing job, a far better job than the other side.

That doesn't generally happen in programming.  The arbiter of whether the program works is generally the computer system itself.  If it runs without errors it's well-done, if not there are errors in the programming logic (or bugs in compiler, etc., etc.).  Sure, there are issues of whether an error-free program is a good program, boiling down to user-interface, features, etc., but those don't really have an analog in the legal world, either.

That brings another difference to mind:  legal issues generally come into play in cases where two parties are antagonistic to one another.  In the business world lawyers are generally divided into two large groups: litigators and transactional lawyers.  Litigators generally work on court cases, where the existence of a dispute between two sides is obvious.  Transactional lawyers work on deals, where it's less obvious that the interests of both sides are antagonistic, but where in the end both sides are trying to protect their own interests and gain from making a deal.  If it's done well both sides may gain, but there's still a need to protect each side's interests so that a client isn't taken advantage of by the other side, and planning so that down the road your client is protected in case the deal goes bad.

A lot of posts on JoS talk about the rift between programmers and management, even to the point where the two develop an antipathy toward each other.  But again this isn't like the antagonism that's involved when representing a client on a legal issue.  A certain degree of antagonism is ever-present in legal practice because lawyers are bound to represent the best interests of their clients, while related parties with different interests have their own lawyers effectively working against you.  The disputes you get on-the-job while programming are more like corporate politics.  In theory, you're all supposed to be on the same team, but differences of opinion arise about how best to promote the interests of the company for which everyone is an employee.  If things were functioning properly, there would be virtually no such disputes at all.  Everyone would work with each other to make the best program possible.  This is far different from the work of a lawyer, where the job itself depends on their being divergent interests so that the lawyer can promote the interests of his or her client, while at the same time workiing more or less against the interest of other clients with lawyers of their own.  Lawyering isn't necessarily a zero-sum game (though in some cases it is), but even when it's not it's antagonistic in a way that programming isn't.  You don't expect good management to place roadblocks in your way to completing a software project; in fact you expect the opposite if your management is good.  In law, the resistance from the other side is not only expected; in one sense it's the only reason that lawyers even exist.

Having said all of that, I will agree that legal-thinking and programming-thinking involve logical concepts in similar ways.  The major difference, here, is the inherent malleability of legal rules that I talked about earlier.  There's are other big differences, too, though: for example, legal issues are often closely related to moral issues.  One thing that lawyers quickly learn to do is to separate their emotions from their legal arguments.  That's certainly not part of programming, which employs logic on a more mathematical or theoretical level where morals and/or emotions aren't closely related at all.

Having said all of that, I would say that I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from studying law and becoming a lawyer.  And I'm sure there are a lot of areas where having a software background could give you a leg up.  It wasn't for me, but there are a lot of people who like it.  And it generally pays more than programming jobs, and is more likely to result in a job where you either run things yourself or, if not that, a job where you at least don't feel like "just another employee".

Herbert Sitz
Monday, March 31, 2003

choppy, I could dig wearing elaborate gowns and horsehair wigs while I work.

.
Monday, March 31, 2003

Great thread!

Check out : "Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair" by Cameron Stracher if you're thinking about becoming a lawyer. 

Whenever I was thinking about going to law school I was told by some attorney relatives that it was a pretty accurate description.  Haven't thought about going since.

big bob
Monday, March 31, 2003

http://www.nylawyer.com/doublebilling/

big bob
Monday, March 31, 2003


My company develops applications used to manage legal cases for court administrators.

There's a huge amount of paperwork associated with any case that must be tracked, in addition to names and addresses of witnesses, parties, and attorneys; scheduling of hearings and trials; fees associated with legal filings; warrants; etc...

So there is a need for people who have a good working knowledge of the legal system and understanding of computers (although not necesarily programmers)

Jason
Monday, March 31, 2003

Philo: The current state of the art is not using Word, it's using document assembly software, which is what I develop.

Search for "document assembly" or "document production" and you'll find lots of software for attorneys.

Kirk
Monday, March 31, 2003

Thanks for the feedback, everyone.
I'm not really an engineer...i have a degree in philosophy! I started programming when I was in grade school.

I actually find the long, boring reading kind of interesting. Pretty much my only hobby is reading books. I read "Ill Gotten Gains" by Leo Katz and that was what got me thinking about Law in the first place.

My friends in the biz are either patent attorneys or do stuff unrelated to either litigation or crime. However, they all do seem to do related things: read a lot of stuff, write a lot of stuff, fill out billable hours, go to lame sounding after-hours lawyer social get togethers. I don't think I'd be into the typical lawyer lifestyle, which is why I was wondering about potential "alternative" software/law career convergence.

Due to my patent agent friend bias I totally neglected to remember the whole computer crime bit, that might interesting to check out.

choppy
Monday, March 31, 2003

"Ill gotten gains" is a pretty darn good book, IMO.

P.S. I was one class of a philosophy major myself, and I've considered Law as a second career if I get tired of programming, so I appreciate the thread. :)

Steven C.
Monday, March 31, 2003

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