Hunit - Smart Legal Contracts

Legal Insights: Will the lawyer of the future know how to code?


This article is the first of Hunit’s Legal Insights series. We’ll be sharing some of the key learnings that we’ve gained from in-depth interviews with legal professionals across multiple international markets.

As it stands today, the legal profession’s basic toolset hasn’t changed since the quill and ink pot. First typewriters, then word processors and later document management tools have all provided increasingly large productivity gains, but they all still output to the same medium: paper and signature. The most recent step? A PDF that imitates paper, into which one inserts a digital representation of their freehand signature. Progress? Absolutely. A phase change? Not yet.

So before we get to the subject of coding lawyers, perhaps an even more basic question needs to be answered: will the practice of law continue to orbit around pieces of paper?

As a provider of LegalTech SaaS for authoring and managing smart contracts, these questions are central to Hunit’s business… so at the outset we read everything we could. What we found generally fell into two main categories: i) academic articles theorizing about what the future could/would be, based on the opinions of the authors or ii) articles written by the big consultancies or international law firms containing practical advice about how to manage the complexities of adapting to new legal technologies or paradigms. Valuable information, but what did the global body of legal professionals themselves feel about these subjects? The rate of adoption by the rank and file will ultimately be what determines what innovations are made and when, but we didn’t find good data in this area.

To generate our own proprietary understanding, Hunit has and is running multiple ongoing market research programs. These are based on in-depth conversations with a variety of legal industry professionals in multiple international markets. Two central questions we sought to answer at the outset:

  • Does the legal profession believe that commercial or financial agreements will continue to be paper based?
  • Do legal professionals think that the lawyer of the future must know how to write computer code?

To address the most straightforward of the two questions: across 5 international markets, from senior partners to junior associates in law firms collectively representing 10’s of thousands of lawyers, 100% (!) of interviewees felt that natively digital agreements are the future of law.

A further 100% of interviewees believed that these natively digital agreements would have the ability to execute certain aspects of a binding legal agreement on their own, ending a period (lasting millennia) where legal agreements were comprised of static descriptions of an understanding between parties. To quote one respondent, “we’ve already started to look at our work as data and not text or documents”.

The second question however turned out to be more complex. Of the circa 5% of interviewees that had already learned how to write computer code (which were exclusively younger, associate-level lawyers), the majority opinion was that coding will be a central skill for tomorrow’s legal professional. Perhaps not a surprise!

But of the non-coding interviewees, the majority response turned out to be form of “I don’t know”. In several instances, it was expressed as a wide-eyed silence (i.e. ‘oh no, do I have to learn this?’ – thankfully we used video conferencing!). Others shared an iteration of “it’s for the next generation of lawyers to figure out” (i.e. ‘I’m not learning this’). But overall, we found that very few (<10%) non-coding interviewees had a clear vision of how the legal profession would transition to the digital future that every single interviewee believed was a certainty.

A second track of dialogue then arose – if Hunit’s questions implied that coding could be a feature of the future practice of law, a significant portion of interviewees wondered what type of coding that would be.

Concerns that were shared included:

“How would someone know which of the many possible programming languages would be the right one to invest time and effort into?”

“If there is a plurality of scripting languages in use, does coding proficiency become another circle in the Venn diagram alongside language and jurisdiction that determines what a lawyer is qualified to handle?

A final point that arose in some interviews concerning computer coding skills was that of counterparty counsel onboarding and workflow management. To quote an English interviewee “the nice thing about using the English language is that when I send a draft document to someone, I’m reasonably certain that they’ll understand it the same way that either a judge and I would.”

Using the analysis processes described in Ron Adner’s “The Wide Lens” (a tremendous resource for any innovation start-up), we realized smart contract systems that required lawyers to learn and use computer coding skills were fraught with multiple levels of what Adner describes as “adoption chain risk”. So much, in fact, that it was doubtful that natively digital, smart contracts would expand beyond niche adoption should coding be a requirement.

Our conclusion therefore was not that the future lawyer will or will not know how to code, but rather, if the widespread digitalization of legal agreements is to occur, they can’t and shouldn’t learn to code. Instead, the industry needs tools that removes coding from the equation and mitigates adoption chain risks related to the underlying technology of smart contracts.

Our Legal Insights series will soon be exploring a number of topics only touched upon today. For example, the term ‘smart contract’ is both vague and expansive, leading to conversations where using the same words can result in very different understandings. However, we decided to start by exploring the use of coding skills in the legal profession as it is, in many ways, Hunit’s origin story.

The next article in our series will explore an unexpected result of Hunit’s in-depth interviews series – billing in the age legal technology. Please follow our LinkedIn page to be notified of its publication!

If you’re a legal professional and would like to participate in one of our interviews, please reach out on LinkedIn – we’d love to speak!