The conventional wisdom among lawyers and legal educators has long been that having a second related degree or skill from another field can be helpful in finding an appropriate career path. That is, a law degree plus, among others, an MBA, engineering or nursing degree can be quite helpful in finding an area of specialization that leverages both fields. There are synergies and advantages to be shared by both the lawyers and their clients in these circumstances.
Recently, this something extra has expanded to include very timely applied tech and tech business skills. Two recently reported developments highlight this important emerging trend. One involves a new generation of attorneys who have a depth of coding skills and the other is an advanced law degree to prepare them for positions in the tech and entrepreneurial marketplaces. Let’s have a look at them individually and then what they might means together for legal professionals in a rapidly changing world. I will summarize and annotate both of them, and compile a few plain text questions of my own.
Legal Codes and Lawyers Who Code
The first article features four young lawyers who have found productive ways to apply their coding skills at their law offices. This story appeared in the November 13, 2015 edition of The Recorder (subscription required) entitled Lawyers Who Code Hack New Career Path by Patience Haggin. I highly recommend reading it in its entirely.
During an interview at Apple for a secondment (a form of temporary arrangement where a lawyer from a firm will join the in-house legal department of a client)¹, a first-year lawyer named Canek Acosta was asked where he knew how to use Excel. He “laughed – and got the job” at Apple. In addition to his law degree, he had majored in computer science and math as an undergraduate.
Next, as a law student at Michigan State University College of Law, he participated in the LegalRnD – The Center for Legal Services Innovation, a program that teaches students to identify and solve “legal industry process bottlenecks”. The Legal RnD website lists and describes all eight courses in their curriculum. It has also sent out teams to legal hackathons. (See the March 24, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled “Hackcess to Justice” Legal Hackathons in 2014 and 2015 for details on these events.)
Using his combination of skills, Acosta wrote scripts that automated certain tasks, including budget spreadsheets, for Apple’s legal department. As a result, some new efficiencies were achieved. Acosta believes that his experience at Apple was helpful in subsequently getting hired at the law firm of O’Melvany & Myers as an associate.
While his experience is currently uncommon, law firms are expected to increasingly recruit law students to become associates who have such contemporary skills in addition to their legal education. Furthermore, some of these students are sidestepping traditional roles in law practice and finding opportunities in law practice management and other non-legal staff roles that require a conflation of “legal analysis and hacking skills”.
Acosta further believes that a “hybrid lawyer-programmer” can locate the issues in law office operational workflows and then resolve them. Now at O’Melvany, in addition to his regular responsibilities as a litigation associate, he is also being asked to use his programming ability to “automate tasks for the firm or a client matter”.
At the San Francisco office of Winston & Strawn, first-year associate Joseph Mornin has also made good use of his programming skills. While attending UC-Berkeley School of Law, he wrote a program to assist legal scholars in generating “permanent links when citing online sources”. He also authored a browser extension called Bestlaw that “adds features to Westlaw“, a major provider of online legal research services.
2. Consultants and Project Managers
In Chicago, the law firm Seyfarth Shaw has a legal industry consulting subsidiary called SeyfarthLean. One of their associate legal solutions architects is Amani Smathers. She believes that lawyers will have to be “T-shaped” whereby they will need to combine their “legal expertise” with other skills including “programming, or marketing, or project management“.² Although she is also a graduate of Michigan State University College of Law, instead of practicing law, she is on a team that provides consulting for clients on, among other things, data analytics. She believes that “legal hacking jobs” may provide alternatives to other attorneys not fully interested in more traditional forms of law practices.
Yet another Michigan State law graduate, Patrick Ellis, is working as a legal project manager at the Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn. In this capacity, he uses his background in statistics to “develop estimates and pricing arrangements”. (Mr. Ellis was previously mentioned in a Subway Fold post on March 15, 2015, entitled Does Being on Law Review or Effective Blogging and Networking Provide Law Students with Better Employment Prospects?.)
A New and Unique LLM to be Offered Jointly by Cornell Law School and Cornell Tech
The second article concerned the announcement of a new 1-year, full-time Master of Laws program (which confers an “LLM” degree), to be offered jointly by Cornell Law School and Cornell Tech (a technology-focused graduate and research campus of Cornell in New York City). This LLM is intended to provide practicing attorneys and other graduates with specialized skills needed to support and to lead tech companies. In effect, the program combines elements of law, technology and entrepreneurship. This news was carried in a post on October 29, 2015 on The Cornell Daily Sun entitled Cornell Tech, Law School Launch New Degree Program by Annie Bui.
According to Cornell’s October 27, 2015 press release , students in this new program will be engaged in “developing products and other solutions to challenges posed by companies”. They will encounter real-world circumstances facings businesses and startups in today’s digital marketplace. This will further include studying the accompanying societal and policy implications.
The program is expected to launch in 2016. It will be relocated from a temporary site and then moved to the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in NYC in 2017.
- What other types of changes, degrees and initiatives are needed for law schools to better prepare their graduates for practicing in the digital economy? For example, should basic coding principles be introduced in some classes such as first-year contracts to enable students to better handle matters involving Bitcoin and the blockchain when they graduate? (See these four Subway Fold posts on this rapidly expanding technology.)
- Should Cornell Law School, as well as other law schools interested in instituting similar courses and degrees, consider offering them online? If not for full degree statuses, should these courses alternatively be accredited for Continuing Legal Education requirements?
- Will or should the Cornell Law/Cornell Tech LLM syllabus offer the types of tech and tech business skills taught by the Michigan State’s LegalRnD program? What do each of these law schools’ programs discussed here possibly have to offer to each other? What unique advantage(s) might an attorney with an LLM also have if he or she can do some coding?
- Are there any law offices out there that are starting to add an attorney’s tech skills and coding capabilities to their evaluation of potential job candidates? Are legal recruiters adding these criteria to job descriptions for searching they are conducting?
- Are there law offices out there that are beginning to take an attorney’s tech skills and/or coding contributions into account during annual performance reviews? If not, should they now considering adding them and how should they be evaluated?
1. Here is an informative opinion about the ethical issues involved secondment arrangements issued by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on Professional and Judicial Ethics.
2. I had an opportunity to hear Ms. Smathers give a very informative presentation about “T-shaped skills” at the Reinvent Law presentation held in New York in February 2014.
Editor’s Note – this article reprinted with the permission of the author – first published on his blog – The Subway Fold.