Law Is Code

Business + Economics + Media + Practice + Tech
July 14, 2015
Read this in 5 minutes

Law is the original code (hence the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the Internal Revenue Code, the Louisiana Civil Code, etc.), and code is poetry. It is all language and logic, syntax and semantics.

I have studied and implemented code on and off in spates and spurts since the 80s – everything from graphics to games. My studies of English and Romance languages go back a bit further. And the most recent additions to my vocabulary come out of legal codes. I am licensed in five jurisdictions – MA/RI, NY/CT, and LA. The outlier there is Louisiana.

The practice of law in Louisiana is a unique linguistic undertaking. I had to learn a new lexicon influenced by Louisiana’s Spanish and French colonial heritages carrying over from 18th c. and 19th c. For example, usufruct is a unique real property concept concerning usage and exploitation (Article 535), and redhibition is a unique but common sense warranty against defects (Article 2520).

Now, take the lexical linkage between law and code and couple it with the contemporary economy. That is where my particular legal and digital practices come together. Certainly there is no business without the legal facet. But fully engaging modern modes of business also requires a digital facet – if not a front line.

When and how did this come together for me in particular? I joined a research university in 2009 just as the recession was fully setting in. I was several years into an already widely varied practice and had not thought much about code in a good while. Although overall startup rates were down (see Fig. 1 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and note that intersection of births/deaths of firms has been a leading indicator of recession), the localized combination of dynamics in Boston’s advanced software community, residence at a well-funded academic entity, and the very fact of recession itself, pulled me into a serial string of technology startup activities that expanded my reach in law yet again.

Fig. 1 – Firm Startup Trends

My history in coding came back. I am often asked by clients to found media companies, negotiate terms of engagement with digital vendors, draft technical licenses involving internationally protected intellectual properties, steward matters through communications regulations, litigate commercial transactions documented in virtual environments, account for online privacy and information security, manage digital legacies, and so on. To do these things well as an attorney, I must understand the Internet environment at an almost scholarly level, and perhaps natively. (It helps to be schooled above the bar in mathematics as well, i.e. objective concepts of design particular to geometry, and algorithmic functions dependent on discrete calculus. Much of computer science is mathematical at base.)

There are too many advantages to coding knowledge to not bring it to bear on behalf of clients. There is every reason to integrate legal with digital. Seamless interaction of the disciplines strengthens both by giving the digital side a concrete basis in business, and by giving the legal side a creative edge that helps businesses innovate.

The ability to get a digital business off the ground – the same way one might get a physical business off the ground – seems a sensible thing to include in an attorney’s range of practice. We are all working in a marketplace being dominated by online activity.

So in addition to my legal practice, I keep active with small media labs and the development of digital workflows – from vision and conceptualization, to original content production, to payment and communications systems, to legal and financial infrastructure, and to, of course, web and application design and development (see some recent sites in Fig. 2). I deploy a curated selection of tools and am particularly endeared and indebted to minimalistic techniques that help short-circuit embedded industry inefficiencies.

Fig. 2 – Recent Sites

For the ultra curious, here is an example of the kind of thing that can happen on the inside of a web project. This is a PHP function for confining the scope of a visitor’s site search to a species of WordPress content, i.e. the results displayed will be drawn only from the information contained in a specified table of the linked database. These kinds of functions are incredibly useful and multitudinous in form – just about any relationship between content and logic you can imagine could be composed as a mathematical-linguistic equation to yield a desired output. (WordPress powers almost a quarter of all websites around the world, for example The New York Times, Google Ventures, and the one you are reading right now. Also, PHP is the language behind Facebook. Though there are definitely more modern languages out there.) Note the closing brace at the end of this code block.

add_filter( 'pre_get_posts', 'lets_exclude_pages' );

function lets_exclude_pages( $query ) {

if ( $query->is_search ) {

$query->set( 'post_type', 'post' );


return $query;

} ←

Code is laid out as it is for a variety of reasons. As they are in law, accurate language and punctuation are requisite. And here too there are elements of style that stem from sound principles.

About that final brace – it completes the logic in the same way nested parentheticals work in legal citation. Take a look at this quadruple-nested parenthetical from a U.S. Supreme Court brief I helped draft:

The arm of the State doctrine is rooted in federalism’s abiding respect for States’ absolute discretion to delegate state authority, power, privileges, and immunities to state instrumentalities. Pennhurst State School & Hosp., 465 U.S. at 116-117 (“[T]he Eleventh Amendment’s restriction on the federal judicial power is based in large part on ‘the problems of federalism inherent in making one sovereign appear against its will in the courts of another.’ (quoting Employees v. Missouri Pub. Health Dept., 411 U.S. 279, 294 (1973)); Fed. Maritime Comm’n v. South Carolina Ports Authority, 535 U.S. 743, 765 (2002) (“While state sovereign immunity serves the important function of shielding state treasuries and thus preserving the States’ ability to govern in accordance with the will of their citizens, the doctrine’s central purpose is to ‘accord the States the respect owed them as’ joint sovereigns.” (quoting Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 750-51 (1999), and Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 146 (1993)))).

This example is famous in my mind because the brief was submitted prior to my final proof and the team receiving my instruction to add the fourth closing parenthesis.

Law and software both have provided a near meditative depth of training in detail orientation of this kind, and it is always all for the client.

Did you find value in this piece? Tweet or Like it so others can, too.