As Fordham Law Professor Mark R. Patterson’s Blockchain and/or the Law course progressed during the fall 2018 semester, he realized that his students needed to grasp more than just the practical opportunities and risks the cryptographic technology provided—they needed an introduction to the underpinnings of the technology itself.
From this classroom insight arose Patterson’s decision to offer Programming for Lawyers, a course first developed at Georgetown Law by Professor Paul Ohm and Jonathan Frankle, a computer scientist. In the spring 2019 courses, students are introduced to the programming language Python. According to Patterson, the course provides students the detailed knowledge to identify whether a program is efficient or diagnose what might go wrong and thus better appreciate the technical and legal issues at hand when speaking with programmers. Patterson compares this programming groundwork to a lawyer who is provided a brief description of a contract and its intent and then is able to discern its effectiveness or future problem areas.
Patterson’s is not the only Law School course this semester that prepares students to utilize and grapple with technology in their legal careers. For the second consecutive semester, former Commodity Exchange Chairman Donna Redel ’95 is teaching Blockchain, Virtual Currencies, and Tokens: An Examination of Business & Legal Issues.
“It’s the rare lawyer these days who doesn’t interact with clients whose work involves technological elements,” Patterson said. “For this reason, it’s important for students to have the skills to communicate and understand technological issues as well.”
Re-Programming Legal Thinking
In some ways, Programming for Lawyers is a return to Patterson’s roots. His programming experience prior to attending law school served him well as he pursued his legal education. Likewise, he hopes students will benefit from studying an area that requires more structure and precision than the typical legal education class provides.
“It’s not that I think lawyers will become programmers,” Patterson said, explaining the course’s utility. “There’s a particular approach programmers have, a particular ability they have for knowing what they can do easily and what they can’t do easily. Law students don’t have the experience with programming to make those assessments. That’s something I noticed in the blockchain class in the fall 2018 semester.”
Students in Programming for Lawyers will be able to write simple programs in Python and use them to automate routine tasks, understand fundamental software concepts including control flow, data types, databases, and web servers, and gain enough familiarity with modern software to quickly put in context new technical information.
The course consists of lectures about programming constructs and labs where teaching assistants, versed in Python and advanced programming techniques, walk the class of beginners through examples. Once problems are assigned, however, students are on their own.
“That’s the only way to do it,” Patterson said. “Just as you can’t learn to draft a contract except by drafting a contract, you can’t find a solution to programming without doing programming.”
Linking Law Students to Blockchain
A tech-related revelation of a different sort prompted Redel to conceive of her current course at Fordham. Notably, she took the “very unpopular” position in 2016 that initial coin offerings (ICOs) and cryptocurrency exchanges needed to implement better controls to protect retail investors. She talks about ICOs and virtual exchanges in her blockchain class.
Blockchain is a database housing a collection of records that a crowd oversees and maintains on the Internet. This decentralized public ledger features a “block,” representing a number of transactional records, and a “chain,” linking them with a hash function used to map data. Blockchain is commonly associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Observing this burgeoning financial industry related to offerings, money raisings, and assets traded convinced Redel to view blockchain through a regulatory legal lens.
Addressing how regulation has changed and is changing blockchain served as a recurring theme in Redel’s initial course offering on the topic, which was offered to law and business students. Rapid developments involving the technology, particularly as they pertained to Securities and Exchange Commission actions taken toward law firms, advisors, and other companies associated with blockchain, also necessitated weekly changes to the syllabus.
“The government has nothing against technology and blockchain,” Redel reminded her students when the class conversed about new SEC actions. “They have an obligation to protect investors.”
The fall 2018 course presented opportunities to analyze business projects and legal issues relating to blockchain, explored the development of blockchain as a tool for innovation, and also introduced the primary legal framework in the United States. Students also heard directly from key regulators such as Valerie Szczepanik, the SEC’s senior advisor for digital assets and innovation, and Brent Tomer, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s chief trial attorney.
“You could see from the questions posed to the two regulators that the students really understood the legal issues being presented,” Redel said of the week 6 conversation. The following week, Sullivan & Cromwell’s Kenneth Raisler and Ryne Miller addressed the current legal landscape and recapped the important events in 2017–2018 for students. The course’s various guest speakers provided students a window into how the upper echelons of law and business are thinking about blockchain.
Redel’s and Patterson’s courses are only the beginning for Fordham Law’s engagement of its students, faculty, and alumni regarding blockchain and other cutting-edge tech topics.
“Fordham has a great location in New York City and a fantastic reputation thanks to its interactions with the business and legal communities,” Redel said. “There’s a great opportunity here.”