Four Things Lawyers and Hackers Have in Common


Are hackers and lawyers really that different?

If you hear someone talking about the two in the same sentence, you’d be well within your rights to assume it was an expansion of the old debate about whether a pirate or a ninja would win in a fight.

On first impression, the hacker (a.k.a. the software developer, the programmer or any other name you have for someone who turns code into magic) and the lawyer (a.k.a. the attorney, the guy who charges $450 per hour, or the JD) seem like natural enemies. Well I’m here to prove to you that they’re actually not that different.

I’ve taken an interesting path to understand and appreciate both hackers and lawyers. After starting my career in finance, I decided to become a lawyer and found myself as a startup lawyer representing hundreds of early stage technology businesses. Then, one day, fortune struck and I was able to join my first software company in the enterprise software space before co-founding Zaarly. During the past year, I’ve been able to work side by side with dozens of amazing hackers and witness the magic that they create.

Four Things That Lawyers and Hackers Have in Common:

When people think of hackers, they think of a culture based around spurning rules and conventions. When people think of lawyers, they usually imagine someone doing everything they can to ensure that rules and conventions stay firmly in place. This means that I’ve seen more than a few people raise their eyebrows when they learn that I’m a lawyer who made the jump into the world of the computer hacker.

The hacker’s law is more internalized, while that of the lawyer is written down in extensive detail within huge tomes. But to both parties, staying true to their ethos is the most important thing. A lawyer arguing against the law won’t win the case, and a hacker making compromises in the implementation of their code will both see the results crumbling about them if they betray the nature of their role.

Law can be a strange thing to the average person. It’s English, but it isn’t. The words are in English, the syntax is readable most of the time, but the way the language is used can be quite different from how it’s used in everyday speech. You’ll find the same thing with hackers. Partially in how they speak, because slang tends to come into vogue and out of it among them with lightning-fast speeds. However, it’s more in the sense of how hackers create their work. Most programming languages make use of English words and letters.

Depending on the programming language, a layman might well be able to make a guess about what any line of code does from examining the words used. However, like the lawyer, the programmer is using standard words in a very formalized way to create meaning that will often be totally incomprehensible to most people.

Not only do both the lawyer and the hacker use their own unique variants on language, they have to explain it to people on the fly. The lawyer needs to translate pages of law into words their client understands. Likewise, the hacker needs to be able to take the code they write, the images in a data flow diagram, and translate the meaning of any given piece to people at a moment’s notice.

Perhaps the most important shared aspect between the hacker and the lawyer; in the end, they both depend to a huge extent on sharing and cooperation. Despite the fact that both are often seen as lone wolves, each role is among the most community oriented that one could imagine.

The lawyer is part of a large process of law, with each person adding to it, building on it, and implementing or testing various parts to make it all stronger. Together, lawyers work to create a social construct which connects us all together. The hacker does a very similar thing in their own specialty.

Similarly, the entire computer industry exists as it does precisely because of hackers sharing their discoveries and ideas with each other and building on it to create a larger whole. In the end, I’d say that’s the biggest similarity between the two roles.

When I was a lawyer, I specialized in helping hackers build innovative startups and provided full legal guidance as they grew. Now, as a part of that endeavor on the hacker side here at Zaarly, I find myself humbled by how this new community works together to create original platforms for the future of the industry.

So, who would win in a fight between a lawyer and a hacker? We’ll call it a draw.

Cross-posted from the Zaarly blog.

Eric Koester is co-founder and COO of Zaarly and an attorney, formerly with Cooley LLP. Follow @

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