Lawyers Who Code: Stuart Whittle – Profile

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 [email protected] [yes it is .co].

Stuart WhittleStuart Whittle is Business Services and Innovation Director and equity partner at Weightmans LLP. He is a member of Weightmans’ Board and is responsible for the HR, IT, Risk and Compliance, Facilities and Business Change departments totalling around 170 people.

What kick-started your interest in coding?

“When I joined Weightmans as a trainee solicitor in 1993, I did my last training seat working for the then “IT Partner”. Weightmans at that time was a relatively small, Liverpool based, firm who had an IT partner, an HR partner, a marketing partner, as was the way of those things in small law firms 25 years ago.

“During that seat I worked on what was, back then, one of the largest pieces of litigation against the legal profession involving over 2,000 claimants, 800 solicitors and 30 institutional lenders. To help manage the litigation I was put in charge of a Microsoft Access 95 database. I did a week’s course with a local training provider that enabled me to work on the database, enhancing and improving it over the course of the litigation which ran for a number of years and which included running queries of varying degrees of complexity to extract the information we needed for the litigation from time to time. Using FrontPage 95 and some html and javascript skills I had acquired over the years (from external courses run by Liverpool University for SMEs), I built the firm’s first intranet which initially was intended to be a single source of truth for my department’s “Level 3” instructions which we needed for our ISO 9001 quality standard.

“In 2000, I started a Master’s degree in IT with Liverpool University. When I completed that degree, by which time I was a partner in the firm, I started work on designing and developing workflows on our case management system before taking over the running of the IT Department in 2005. In 2010 I took on responsibility for all of Weightmans operational functions (save for finance) since when I have been on the firm’s board. More latterly I have taken on responsibility for innovation within Weightmans as it sits well with the areas for which I am responsible.”

How does coding help you as a lawyer?

“If I widen the question to include understanding how technology works more generally – if you understand what a hard drive is, what the CPU does, what memory does, how an operating system works, how networked devices communicate and the principles behind all of this (a lot of which you need to understand to code) then my view (and I would say this I guess) is that at a very prosaic level you can be far more effective and productive on a day to day basis because you understand what the technology is capable of and how it all hangs together.

“More widely, if you do have a good understanding of how technology works then it can help you work with your clients and think outside of the “legal” box to identify solutions to clients’ needs that combine your core legal service and technology to surprise and delight clients. It is particularly effective where you can provide your clients with something they wouldn’t have necessarily ever asked for but which you can see will help them. Ultimately for me, that interest in coding and technology more widely lead to an career change that I could have never have contemplated at the start of my legal career.’

How many years have you been able to code?

“What I will confess to, is that one of things I discovered through the course of MSc is that I was far from a natural coder. Whilst I genuinely enjoyed the problem solving involved in coding – working out how to get the computer to do the things I wanted it to do – the code that I produced, whilst it did the job more often than not, was never terribly elegant.

“However, seeing how you can interact with the operating system and how you can make calls to objects was a hugely useful learning experience and allows me to have reasonably well informed conversations with the developers in my team who do know how to code.”

What crossover skills are there between lawyering and coding?

“A good lawyer starts with the client and what the client is trying to achieve and then uses their skill and knowledge and expertise to get the client towards that goal. I think there are parallels there with creating software.”

Given the opportunity, should you learn to code first and the law second, or vice versa?

“I am not wholly sure it matters one way or the other. They key thing is context and (sufficient) understanding of both domains and, in particular, walking a mile in each other’s shoes. Fundamentally all lawyers do the same tasks on a day to day basis: we read and write letters; we read and draft documents; we dictate file notes; we time record; we go to meetings; some of us go to court; we bill; we time record; we make telephone calls; and, if we are really desperate we might undertake some legal research (or at least ask the trainee to do some legal research for us).

“We string all these things together in different ways and in different orders and the expertise that goes in to these tasks varies widely but the tasks remain the broadly the same. When you look at all of that from the outside, it can be difficult to understand unless you have actually done it, why the job can be demanding, stressful and rewarding, often all at the same time. Likewise, when we are presented with the many miracles of design and engineering that we take for granted on a day to day level that appear to the end user to be relatively simple it can be difficult to understand the complexity and the effort and the time needed to produce elegant and effective code.”