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Learning to code

Some law schools are beginning to train student to become fluent in technology

Young woman programming

The new Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Ryerson University is training future lawyers the language of technology. Every one of its more than 300 first- and second-year law students learn about coding, design thinking, product development and entrepreneurship through four mandatory courses on legal technology. The goal is to train the next generation of lawyers to be fluent in technology and make them comfortable with ongoing changes in the legal profession.

It's an ambitious plan, but that is part of a shifting landscape in teaching to prepare law students for the future of law.

The concept of teaching tech to law students began in the early days of the law school back in 2017. "We discussed what is unique to Ryerson and how we're going address underrepresented needs," says associate professor Sari Graben, also the associate dean for research and graduate studies. "We knew law and tech would be one of the things we would address."

The first-year innovation course and three other courses in second year are designed as "building blocks" for students to learn the language of tech.

The first course, taught for the first time last year, focuses on introducing students to design thinking, data analytics, and building prototypes. The real work begins in second year. Students enter unfamiliar territory through a one-week intensive coding seminar focused on learning Python, a popular computer programming language.

Kendrick Lo is the perfect guide. As an IP lawyer with an engineering background, Lo is a bridge between two worlds. He teaches an intensive coding course and another on data, code and social innovation. His goal is to teach his students to develop an initiation for good data.

"They need a base level knowledge," says Lo, also the head of innovation and analytics initiatives at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law. "Machine learning and artificial intelligence have had a huge impact on every industry. It benefits our students to dig deeper into the concepts, to go beyond Wikipedia knowledge. You have to understand the performance of algorithms and how data is fed into those programs. This is where programming comes in handy. Without playing around with data and programming, it's hard to develop that intuition to know what's quality data and what's missing."

Once they've acquired that basic knowledge in code, students learn about data analytics, algorithmic bias and information governance. The capstone course on access to justice solutions focuses on projects that would help alleviate access to justice issues. It will be taught in the winter term. Students will use complex data sets that highlight different user groups. From there, students work through the privacy and cybersecurity concerns and figure out what legal advice a client needs.

At the beginning of the school year, students were asked to rank their level of understanding of coding. The average score out of 10 was 3. After the end of the coding course, the average score rose to 6. "One student in the evaluations said they liked learning something new without having the pressure of having to do this perfectly," says Lo.

Canada has a few pioneers in teaching code to law students. Jason Morris began doing it in 2019 at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law while completing his LLM. in computational law. His course focuses on teaching law students to build programs using Docassemble.

"I don't expect law students to be experts after the end of my class," says Morris. "The point is to force you to go through the process to learn something unfamiliar and how you can bring automated products into legal practice."

Morris chose Docassemble because it's free, open-source software. Jonathan Pyle, a lawyer at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, designed the software as an easy-to-use tool for people to automate document assembly. Users input data which creates documents based on the programmers' needs. Morris wants his students to see what's possible.

"No one was telling accountants they need to learn how to code because they have the tools they need," says Morris. "Our legal tech tools haven't caught up to what we need."

His inspiration for his course came from Katie Sykes, who started her class on lawyering in the 21st Century in 2017 at Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law. She partnered with Neota Logic, a document automation software company.

Docassemble and Neota Logic are part of the growing no-code software movement. No-code software is designed to enable users to create programs without having to learn computer languages. No code programs are an attractive option for organizations that don't have the resources to build programs from scratch.

"As institutions, we give them narrow views of what their options are, unintentionally," says Sykes, an associate professor at the Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law. "You work for a big firm and became a partner. But that's not the only option. Doing something different like opening their own law firm and offering only unbundled legal services is a valid option. They can use their skills not just in tech but to be creative in other ways. It's about giving yourself permission to think differently."

If law students are using no-code software, are they still learning to code?

"Coding, to me, is expressing something in a language strict enough that it can be reliably executed by a machine," says Morris. "By that definition, all of these low-code/no-code tools are really just low-typing/no-typing. It's all coding, just easier. But 'hard' was never part of the definition, much less a virtue."

"We don't do any coding in the sense of writing computer language," says Sykes. "Jason takes a broad definition of what coding is, and we do coding in that broader sense. My class is not primarily a tech course. It's about giving students different tools to think about themselves differently and empowering them to forge their own path in law."

Students at Thompson Rivers University are expected to create a prototype by the end of the course. One of Sykes' favourite projects is a mobile app from 2018 designed to help consumers file complaints against phone companies. One of Sykes' students was an employee at a phone company and knew how difficult it was for consumers to argue against faulty charges on their phone bills.

The idea is simple. A user uploads their phone bill and the app calculates whether the user has been overcharged based on the phone plan, the device used, etc. If the user hasn't been overcharged, the app sends them to a list of resources for help. If the user has been overcharged, the app uses a series of interview-style questions to input data. The app creates a complaint in PDF form and sends it to the applicable regulator based on the responses. The real game-changer is how the app had pre-written responses for users to choose from. This ensured information was in the correct order and easy-to-follow for regulators to process.

The problem is the app doesn't exist. None of the apps or projects created by law students at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law, the University of Alberta or Thompson Rivers University have reached the public because law schools don't have the infrastructure to bring these programs to market. In Morris' course, a group of students created an app, Clear Justice, to streamline police complaints and one of the former students, Denis Ram, has decided to move forward to bring the app to market.

But that story is the exception. The idea isn't about getting students to bring products to market, even if they are asked to build something that could have a significant impact on access to justice. The resources needed to make these apps ready for market simply aren't available. And the infrastructure is lacking.

"My dream is to have an app lab to be a permanent home for these projects," says Sykes. "We have great prototypes, but we need at least six months of work to bring them to market. Some students are motivated to work on these projects longer, but then they graduate and I'm busy, so it doesn't happen. We need to create a centre or lab where we can hand them off. You need maintenance, updating and debugging. Students could work on them as an independent project for credit and have a summer job there like a clinic. We need something like this."