Four Things Lawyers and Hackers Have in Common

10/4/11

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:

Rules
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.

Code
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.

Language
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.

Community
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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  • http://improvingsoftware.com JohnFx

    I find this article to be a fairly tortured analogy.

    I’ve worked as a software developer and technical consultant in the legal industry for over 16 years. Over that time I’ve worked extensively with programmers, attorneys, and hybrids of the two. Based on my experience, I feel this article paints an inaccurate picture of both professions. Further, where it is more accurate (Language) it could apply equally to almost any two skilled professions. We all have our jargon and communities, not just lawyers and techies.

    A more apt comparison would be that both lawyers and programmers work within a framework (programming or legal) and are constantly called upon to bend it to fit the needs of their clients, usually under unreasonable deadlines. They both also are subjected to insane 11th hour marathons of work to meet deadlines and have to constantly adapt to changing requirements right up to those deadlines.

    Sorry to be so critical, I just didn’t find much meat in this article.

  • David Klassen

    I don’t see the cor-relation either except for the author’s duality. Law in Canada is still tradionalist. American law is a bit different I believe. No doubt in both realms law is tied to the public opinion, politics and money. The hack culture I am sure is an inverse to all of these community perspectives. I wouldn’t doubt that the lawyer and the hacker would lose inside the others court. However where the individual combines both of these is there a win-win? In the future perhaps… but as far as I know the legal process will take years to make its decisions concerning technology and information security.

  • http://www.zaarly.com Eric Koester

    Hey John and David,

    Totally respect and appreciate each of your opinions. I think I shared the same opinions frankly until I really started spending a great deal of time with our developers at Zaarly.

    For the longest time, I thought that the professions were so different — but I really think that the brain of a lawyer and a developer are way more similar than you might think (and there are actually a series of studies that say that corporate attorneys and developers have similar traits and skills in the areas of logic and creativity).

    For me, I think the real lesson or point of this is to say that while it might seem that these two are very different (and in some degrees they are), I actually find the way lawyers and developers approach problems and do their job to be much more similar than I ever thought. From using code/forms from prior work to the logical organization of code/documents to mashing up concepts from varied agreements or projects… in truth, both are addressing varied problems with a similar thought process.

    Before I was in the weeds of a software company (and living, breathing, eating with our awesome developers), I could never imagine how the two could be similar, but I really find that our CTO and I share so much in common to how we approach our varied problems that there truly is a lot in common.

    Thanks again for reading and love to talk further.
    Eric

  • Joshua

    I was trained as coder, then I became a lawyer, now I am a coder again. To borrow a bit of legal jargon, I will say I concur in the result but not in the judgment.

    Rules
    Both lawyers and coders work with codified rule sets that are created by human beings to express a vision of a system. This system must be internally consistent in order to achieve its intended ends. Therefore logical reasoning and the ability to use models or analogies is key to successfully operating in either legal or coding arena. That is the heart of why lawyers and coders are similar.

    Specifically, Transactional and Regulatory lawyers think and do work that is similar to coders. That is, they all work within the canonical framework that have been created by human authorities and are in many ways subjective in what they provide for. Both also work ‘around’ the gaps that may exist in these systems until the authoritative body (be it the SEC or W3C ) updates the standards. However a key difference is inherent in the types of lawyers that are operating. Litigation lawyers must work to craft arguments that fill in the gaps where the law has not addressed an issue yet so to convince a judge to fill in the gap in the way that benefits the client. This is a very different skill than that discussed above. This makes litigation a separate form of lawyer for which the comparison doesn’t fit.

    Code – The codification is the framework that the rules take (computer code expresses logical relationships and ways of manipulating data, civil codes and restatements of commonlaw cases express the relationships that are governed by the law. Thus making a distinction between the ‘code’ and the ‘rules’ doesn’t make sense, they are a part of each other. The code defines the rules.

    Language – again this seems too be a synonym for both code and rules and adding this distinction does not bolster the authors argument. That being said, the need to translate for the lay person is common, but that is as was mentioned by another commenter common to all skilled professions. It doesn’t demonstrate anything particular to the two fields at issue here.

    Community – Although JohnFX is ostensibly disagreeing with the author, his comment perfectly captures why the two communities are similar. They are both indeed “constantly called upon to bend it to fit the needs of their clients, usually under unreasonable deadlines. They both also are subjected to insane 11th hour marathons of work to meet deadlines and have to constantly adapt to changing requirements right up to those deadlines.” That inanity is a hallmark of the war stories any member of either community will experience with his or her colleagues.

    All in all, the authors framework treats synonymous portions(code, rules and language) of a single unified attribute of the coder and legal professional’s work as separate things which brings confusion to a an excellent underlying point. The point is thus – Lawyers (at least transactional and regulatory ones) and coders do think in similarly logical ways in order to have to employ similar skills to successfully use subjectively codified systems under similarly inane environmental pressure. Thus they must have similarly wired minds.

    Thought provoking post

  • John Fuex

    @Joshua

    I don’t really disagree with the conclusion the author reached so much as the rationale he used to get there. Hence the reason my response does indeed support his conclusion.

    My primary criticism is that the similarities with lawyers could easily be applied to any number of fields and weren’t really that sharply focused on programmers vs. lawyers.

  • http://thehackerportal.elementfx.com Samuel

    Nice Man Really Good Conclusion