Legal Geek is compiling a ‘hack-book’ of lawyers and legaltechies who code. If you code, or are learning to code, we would love to include you in our ‘hack-book’. Drop us a line via firstname.lastname@example.org [yes it is .co].
Simon Gittins is a former coder who became barrister at 27. He later moved into LegalTech and founded the legal services platform Absolute Barrister, where he is the CEO.
How did you get started in coding?
“I started coding as a kid and when I was 17 I designed and built the computer for a robot to hoover the house. It was great fun and I remember also having to send off my ZX81 to get a Fortran chip fitted to it, which was a ‘really cool’ thing to do at the time. In those days they would basically drill a hole in the top of the computer and insert a massive toggle switch in the top. That was the only way to get a different language in the past. I first studied Physics at University and there was quite a lot of programming in the course.
After University I worked for a big software house programming code for financial institutions such as UK banks, German auto-manufacturers and the Inland Revenue.
“So I was a pure out-and-out coder until the age of 27.”
Why did you move from coding to law?
“I think when you start coding you realise you can solve problems and that’s great. But then you realise that problems exist further down the line and you get interested in what those problems are.
“I got interested in law after patenting business methods so I decided to go to law school. That was in 2002 and then I went to Bar school and became a barrister in 2005. I ended up actually practising in a completely different area: crime with a human rights angle.”
Has coding helped you in your legal career?
“Yes absolutely. Firstly, there are a lot of parallels between the two disciplines. In coding you learn early on that you need to combine technical execution with a good UX. Equally as a barrister you need to have excellent knowledge of the law but it will all be for nothing if your point is ignored by the jury, so you need to present your case with great UX as well!
“Also, very early on in my career as a pupil barrister I worked under a senior colleague, on a case under the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) legislation. It was a test case with DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). We were acting for the defence and I noticed that the legislation was hard coded, unlike the Misuse of Drugs Act, which was written like a sub-routine so that any controlled drug is illegal, before then going on to define what a ‘controlled drug’ is (so if you were to indict someone for possession of cocaine, they’d be stuffed for a defence if they tried to prove they had marijuana instead). Here, they’d essentially hard coded the law so you had to prove that the protected item was beyond reasonable doubt classifiable in Column A (very endangered) or prove beyond reasonable doubt that it was classifiable in Column B (not quite so endangered). The Prosecution in our case had put both charges on the indictment, and the judge struck it out on the defence application, recognising that if you were unsure of which, both tasks were impossible. In the end the government had to re-legislate! And this was all from an argument we had sitting in the pub saying ‘look they have got this wrong and it’s going to fail’. It was a new piece of legislation and it had to be re-worked.
“Also Steve Jobs said everyone should study law and programming, not to be become a lawyer or a programmer necessarily but in order to effectively understand some sort of structured decision-making. And damn it, I can’t come up with a better reason than that!”
What advice would you give to lawyers thinking of coding and coders thinking of learning law?
“I think most lawyers would make terrific coders. And my advice would be to download a course off the internet, which you can do for £5-10 pounds. Do it, get on with it, not tomorrow, not the next day. I think it’s something to which a lot of lawyers can, with relative ease, turn their hand to.
“But when planning to jump in either direction I think it’s vital to work out what you are trying to achieve and if it’s pretty brilliant, which I’m sure it will be, then you need to work out when’s the right time to go for it. In short, if you have an idea, write it down, work out what you need to do, and when the right time would be, and go for it.”