A lawyer's guide to programming and computer science
14/11/2019

Wim Dejonghe recently claimed that "the legal professional of the future needs programming skills". The Allen & Overy partner is not the only one claiming that a certain level of expertise in computer science will be required for lawyers to adapt to the now rapidly evolving legal profession.

This is not an article on how artificial intelligence, blockchain and other technologies will impact the daily practice of a lawyer or in-house counsel, however. You're reading this, so you're probably already aware of their potential impact*. What you need now, is a way to understand what's going on under the hood, because you won't get far by merely listing potential applications, without knowing how they work.

That's why I've listed what I believe are the most useful (free) resources to (i) establish basic knowledge and understanding of programming and computer science in general, and (ii) dive deeper into the world of artificial intelligence and blockchain. I experienced first-hand that you won't get far without a solid foundation to build on, so try not to skip too many steps along the way!


Getting started.

The best way build that foundation is by taking Harvard's Introduction to Computer Science class. Forgot live classes and high tuition fees, you can take this class from behind your computer screen. All classes are available on Youtube, but enrolling on edX will give you (free) access to class transcripts and additional material. With twelve classes of about two hours each, however, this one's for those committing for the long run!

Edit: Harvard now also created a course designed for lawyers, and the best news is: it's still free and all videos are available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhQjrBD2T380CIOjHCjIAugO3ryncp6IW

What you will have learned up to this point: (i) the very basics of how computers work (about bits & bytes, memory allocation, the internet, etc.) and an introduction to several programming languages (starting with the most rudimental one, to get a feel of the logic behind them).

Although the Harvard professor is absolutely brilliant, you might have to get your hands dirty to fully understand how the different programming languages work and interact.

That's where Codecademy and freeCodeCamp come into play. Both websites teach how to program in the most important languages through interactive exercises and challenges. You'll be surprised how easy it is to set up basic projects!

What you will have learned up to this point: how to program in several programming languages (such as HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript, etc.), what they are used for (front-end vs. back-end, content vs. design, etc.) and how to develop a basic website using these languages.

Can't get enough? Worry not! This guy explains how to master programming in just 5 months "and have fun along the way". He shares resources ranging from short clips explaining how the internet works to extensive guides on how to deploy an app on GitHub pages.


Diving deeper into blockchain

It's now time to take a look at the technologies that are being hyped in the legal sector. After having gone through them, you'll be able to assess whether or not they deserve the overload of attention they are getting (spoiler alert: the answer is a resounding yes!).

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the overload of information out there, however. Two courses stand out with regard to providing a clear introduction to blockchains:

  • Getting Started with Ethereum Solidity Development, a course designed by two Belgian developers, is a great starting point. Although it's a Udemy course, and therefore not free, if it's the first one you're taking, you should be able to enroll at a reduced price. Additionally, they provide much more than a general introduction into blockchains, so you can come back to this one as soon as your skills will have evolved to the satisfactory level.
     
  • Another (free) edX course, Blockchain for Business - An Introduction to Hyperledger Technologies, taught by the people at Hyperledger, captures the essence of "permissioned" blockchains.

What you will have learned up to this point: the business potential of blockchains (such as making a middleman (like a notary) obsolete), the different distributed ledger technologies out there and the different ways in which they can be implemented (permissioned vs. permissionless) and an introduction into how to program a basic smart contract.

We're all very busy of course, so taking a course that takes several hours or days to complete, might not be the ideal solution for someone looking for a quick introduction. Fortunately, you can turn to one of the many blog articlese-books or video's available out there, such as this very original one:

Personally, I love Primavera de Filippi and Aaron Wright's book "Blockchain and the Law".


Diving deeper into artificial intelligence

Probably the most hyped in the legal sector, is artificial intelligence. For someone looking to start from the very basics, it's hard to find the right tools, however.

The edX course on artificial intelligence is a great way to start, but you'll have to wait for the specific start date of the next cycle before being able to take the course. Fortunately, just as is the case with blockchain, there's a multitude of resources to entertain you in the meantime:

  • This Stanford class on Coursera looks promising, and this MIT class is somewhat less fascinating, but provides a good theoretical basis;
     
  • For other types of resources, someone did the job for me, making a non-technical guide to AI and listing useful sites and blogs!


*And if not, take a look at the huge amount of articles published on Lexology on AI and blockchain, for and by lawyers; or attend one of the many local meetups, such as for Belgium: Brussels Legal HackersGhent Legal HackersReshape.legalFuture Lawyers Belgium, etc.

Mr. Stephaan Cloet Mr. Stephaan Cloet
Legal advisor & business developer
contact@lawbox.be

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