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To program or not to program, what should a tech lawyer do?

By Elen Irazabal,

Since I have been teaching Artificial Intelligence, I have the feeling that lawyers tend to misunderstand AI. I think one of the reasons is a lack of technical knowledge. In addition, AI can be very complex, as it is composed of several areas of knowledge: business, mathematics and programming. In the following lines we will talk not only about the knowledge needed to understand AI, but about the technology in general.

Technology has brought us a new wave: from the adoption of technology solution initiatives, to technology-related regulations (Cybersecurity, AI, Blockchain...).

On several occasions I have been asked about AI and programming. I have also met lawyers who have started programming, including lawyers who are working on fully technical jobs and lawyers who want to build their applications themselves. On the other hand, lawyers who want to pursue a technology-oriented career find themselves lost amidst the abundance of information.

Let's distinguish three areas of expertise:

  • Cybersecurity and data protection

  • Artificial Intelligence

  • Legaltech and digital transformation

In all of them, technology is the means to an end. So, first of all, if a professional wants to do technology, the main observation should be: What do I get out of learning technology? Do I want to be a developer to build web applications? Do I want to study natural language processing to analyze legal texts? Do I want to improve my skills to provide better legal advice? Depending on the answer, the topic and intensity will vary. Programming as a developer is not the same as being a digital transformation consultant.

Let's start with the most technological one: I want to be a developer. In this case, you will definitely need to learn programming. If you want to become a data scientist, you will not only need to learn programming, but you will also need some mathematics.

On the other hand, if you just want to be an AI or technology lawyer, I always recommend understanding the logic of programming. This means acquiring the technical knowledge necessary to understand how machines work, how they make decisions and why they make mistakes. This is key to understanding not only AI, but also innovation.

This logic can be taught with or without programming. However, my opinion is that to understand this logic, it is best done through the practice of programming, which gives the person performing it an understanding irreplaceable by any theoretical explanation. The goal is not to learn the syntax of programming, but to understand the logic behind the decision making process.

For advocates of AI and legal technology, understanding how machines work and how developers or data scientists instruct the machine provides a broader and more accurate understanding of the technology compared to a purely legal or conceptual background.

Let's take an example regarding AI transparency: how to advise on this matter if we don't know why some algorithms are black boxes? Regarding digital transformation and legaltech: how to know which technology fits our problem if we do not know how to distinguish one solution from another? How to know if an AI can solve our problem and not another cheaper technology? how to differentiate an AI solution from an automation solution? Or in terms of innovation consulting, how do we know where innovation is going to come from? In short, combining technical and legal expertise to autonomously evaluate technological and legal projects.

Finally, when it comes to cybersecurity and data protection, I always recommend knowing how the Internet works through software fundamentals. Knowing this allows us to understand the technical security measures. Why we apply one measure or another, in what situations, etc. Understanding how data travels over the Internet is essential to understanding data protection issues in companies. Even when we understand how the internet works, we can better understand the blockchain revolution.

It should be noted that many technical courses are aimed at technical professionals. Precisely, one of the challenges we face is to adapt these technical aspects to a law-oriented audience. However, I believe that this is not complicated to do. In fact, we have an increase in AI-related applications to law, as well as legal advice on technology.

Going back to the beginning of the article, the best way to get an accurate and realistic approach to a technology like AI is to put yourself in the shoes of an engineer. It is my opinion that the lawyer who understands the technical aspects of his or her practice will add value over those lawyers who do not have this competence.


About the Author

Elen Irazabal is lawyer by profession. She’s co-organizer of R Ladies Madrid. She learned to program in order to be able to do Natural Language Processing on legal texts. She runs her own course where she teaches lawyers how to program and how to learn technical things in Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity. You can follow her here: and check her website:


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