Lawyers learning technology – the value is in the non-obvious
Technology – particularly information technology - is now inextricably intertwined with virtually every aspect of our current and future lives.
Some law schools have responded by teaching (or encouraging students to learn) computer programming which has led law students to ask “What should I learn in computing class or, better yet, a technology class?”
When I interviewed for a job at General Motors after graduating from engineering school, one of my interviewers told me that an engineer becomes obsolete within a decade and that one need not necessarily know a specific technology, but rather needed to know the terminology so as to be able to communicate with those in the know.
This proved to be one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received and is the essence of my answer to the above question.
A technology you study today may become obsolete a few years later and to stay technically relevant, one needs to continuously update your existing technical skills – or learn new ones.
While this might only serve to add more work to law students, as they struggle to coax devices that do not think like they do to properly execute the commands they’ve written, it can also teach them something more valuable: that they don’t know everything, that knowing what they don’t know in any technical area is often as important as what they do know. This, and other things, can be learned in a computing class and can be applied elsewhere.
For example, I had learned how to program in FORTRAN and COBOL – computer languages practically no one knows much less uses today. However, my studies entailed not only learning the languages, but also learning how to draw flowcharts in order to map the processes I wanted the computer to follow and structuring the (resulting) program into distinct sections following very specific rules.
Though I haven't applied my FORTRAN and COBOL expertise for years, I still apply the skill of drawing flowcharts to, for example, map out legal procedural processes. And the mechanics of structuring computer programs has proved to be a useful discipline in organizing my thoughts which in turn, helped improve my communications skills.
Moreover the terminology I learned was valuable - particularly when I encountered my numerous programming limitations and had to communicate with the technical experts who could solve my problems.
Thus law students wondering how anyone could get a computer to review documents better than an experienced barrister while they can barely get their machines to add two numbers, should still try to learn programming. Even if you, like many of your fellow law students, are not cut out to be a programmer, there is valuable knowledge to be acquired in organizing your thoughts, learning techniques that can be valuable in other applications, knowing the limits of your knowledge and acquiring the skills necessary to communicate with others who will help you transcend those limits.
Ronald Yu, Hong Kong