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Coding workshop gives Md. lawyers new tools

“My biggest hope is that lawyers will walk away with a thought that law isn't what it used to be,” says Matthew Stubenberg, a panelist on a virtual reality education session at the MSBA's Annual Meeting. “Not just virtual reality, (but) algorithms and big data are going to have a massive impact, from finding cases to determining which ones are most likely to be winnable.” (File photo)

‘Lawyers actually made good coders,’ says Matthew Stubenberg, IT director at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. ‘Breaking a statute into its component parts is the same thing you do in coding.’ (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Lawyers are not typically known for their technological prowess, but a few tech-savvy attorneys want others to see the potential benefits of making their practices more digital.

“We’re right on the cusp of a very exponential change in the law,” said Matthew Stubenberg, chairman of the technology committee of the Young Lawyers Section of the Maryland State Bar Association, referring to the rise of legal technology and volume of data available on the internet.

Last week, Stubenberg hosted “Coding for Lawyers” with the Young Lawyers Section, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, where he is IT director and staff attorney, and Legal Hackers Baltimore. The event was the first of its kind put on by the Young Lawyers Section for coding.

“We’re trying to identify issues our members are interested in and we might not have considered in past years,” said Michael Hudak, president of the Young Lawyer’s Section.

The event included an introductory lesson for the computing language Python, a good starting place for coding novices, Stubenberg said. The purpose of the lesson was to have people learn the basics of coding, actually type the code and get an inside look at how software is made. But most of all, Stubenberg wanted to make coding seem less intimidating.

“A lot of legal professionals will feel really nervous getting into coding without some background,” he said. “I wanted to break through that myth.”

During the session, participants wrote a code to determine how many points would be added to a person’s driver’s license depending on how much over the speed limit the person was driving.

“It was based on actual Maryland law and in theory, the code actually worked,” Stubenberg said. “It’s a great starting point to show just how automated these statutes and pieces of the law can become.”

Not only can coding be useful in practicing law, using and understanding a computer language is similar to how lawyers interpret statutes, Stubenberg said.

“Lawyers actually made good coders. Breaking a statute into its component parts is the same thing you do in coding,” he said.

Hudak, a Baltimore city prosecutor, had never done any coding before last week’s event at the University of Baltimore School of Law but learned the skill can be make his day job easier when he needs to analyze something quickly.

“You don’t have to be a master coder to do coding that can benefit you and your clients,” Hudak said.

Colin Starger, co-founder of Legal Hackers Baltimore, teaches the pretrial justice clinic at UB Law and has his students do some web coding to analyze trends in bail. As a former computer programmer, Starger approaches his legal work both as a scholar and a lawyer through his technology background.

On top of the algorithmic thinking used in law and coding, Starger believes having deeper computer literacy is important for lawyers to better understand the limits of the technology they use in their practice in when working on cases.

“To understand the limit of the tools, you have to get to know it a little bit better. Know when to be critical and you won’t be scared to know the inner parts of it,” he said.

Starger and Legal Hackers Baltimore co-founder Jason Tashea were both interested in law and technology and would talk about it over beers. In September 2016, they decided to open a Baltimore chapter of Legal Hackers, which has chapters all over the country.

“I’m not of the opinion that all lawyers need to know how to code,” Tashea said. “The goal for us is to create opportunities and see the value in these subjects because they’re going to impact their practices in one way or another.”

Legal Hackers have scheduled a panel discussion next month on how the internet is affecting access to justice.

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