Law as Coding, Law as Hacking.

May 1, 2023·

4 min read

I came to tech from the legal profession, and as such I've often thought about what makes these two fields similar yet different. I've written on this topic before - on the surface, these two fields could not be more different. Law is an older discipline, more connected to the social sciences. It is generally a conservative, hierarchical profession that innately values order and respect for traditions and established practices. The tech world, by contrast, is fluid, valuing innovation, novelty, and change. Of course, these are gross generalizations, but I think they contain a high degree of truth.

That being said, there is a fundamental kinship beneath these differences. Both law and tech are analytical disciplines that carry a good deal of social influence. Moreover, practicing law can be akin to developing software — in that sense, it’s more than a coincidence that bodies of law are often referred to as codes. Writing a contract or statute is akin to writing a script or program; you’re writing instructions with the expectation that they will achieve certain results. Continuing this analogy, analyzing caselaw, statutes, and other legal materials, and then applying these to specific factual situations is analogous to debugging, testing, or compiling code.

However, in the legal context, there’s no test environment, you don’t know if your “code” will ever be compiled (ie, come before a judge), and the outcome of that compilation is a lot less certain. In that sense, legal practice is a crazier, more stressful variant of writing code, and on further reflection, this background may be why I never really minded the particularly chaotic nature of web technologies.

But legal practice is also hacking. Fundamentally, lawyers are advocates; rather than passively analyze the rules, they try to obtain a particular result; this could be on behalf of a client, a government agency, or a cause. Some key examples:

  • Trying to establish a favorable new precedent in a court of law

  • Coming up with favorable interpretations of existing law

  • Finding new applications for existing statutes

This comparison fails somewhat, but it does so in an interesting way. Hacking, as it is now understood, implies a useful shortcut (ie, the life hack) or creative repurposing or reconfiguration. The connotation is one of nonstandard, unintended or unforeseen, almost non-permitted functionality; hacks are not thought to be everyday things. By contrast, this kind of behavior is not abnormal, but is the standard for legal practice — you’re often on a particular ‘side,’ and your professional duty is to work with the facts and the law in such a way to favor that side.

As a result. both professions are constrained in the same way; it’s necessary to be skilled at your craft, but it’s not enough. One has to deliver results, and the relevant skills are simply a means to that end. As such, a good lawyer, like a good software developer, is good at what she does, but is also able to translate these skills into solutions. Beyond technical or professional excellence, who benefits?

The law-technology relationship goes beyond these implicit comparisons. Technology continues to disrupt this profession in a variety of ways, creating new legal issues for attorneys to understand, and changing the way they practice law. A majority of states have formally adopted a duty of technological competence for attorneys—technological literacy is not merely a good idea, but also a formal requirement.

These realities shaped my journey into tech. It was a gradual process — first dealing with tech and tech-adjacent issues in my legal practice, then entering the tech world with the expectation of working on problem sets affecting law. It hasn't gone quite according to plan - I haven't done much professionally in the legal tech sector, and I've become much more of a generalist software engineer than I expected.

The advent of new AI technologies has introduced new dimensions to the law-tech relationship, so I might eventually return to using my legal background. The future's open like that, but even if that doesn't pan out, it's been a wonderful journey so far.