Law Practice Today | January 2014 | The Innovation Issue
January 2014 | The Innovation Issue
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Hacking the Law

By Dan Lear

 

Lawyers, technologists and policy makers are starting to think about law and policy in new and exciting ways. Just as startup entrepreneurs implement innovative ideas and develop new technologies that change how we live and interact, small groups of lawyers and other professionals have been collaborating to create new paradigms for the legal system.

These legal innovators and technologists call themselves “legal hackers.” Over the last two years, legal hacking and legal innovation groups have emerged throughout North America. The term “hacker” has a negative connotation in some circles. However, legal hackers hearken to the origins of hacking, and see themselves not as fugitives but as creative problem solvers, dedicated to finding efficiencies, making law more accessible, improving the law for lawyers and their clients, and disrupting outdated models in the legal system.

A Brief History of Hacking

Most agree that hacker culture was born in the Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. Club members frequently encountered technical problems with the switches and circuits that they used to control and manipulate their trains. They called their clever but unconventional solutions to these technical problems “hacks.”  Eventually, club members began referring to themselves and each other as “hackers.” The term stuck with them as these engineers and their colleagues became increasingly interested in programming computer circuitry as opposed to trains.

Later, members of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley in the 1970s were called hackers. These hobbyist hackers built their own personal computers, sharing parts and software that they each purchased and collected. The club counted as members many of the founders of the personal computing revolution, such as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers, as well as the founders of Osborne Computers, Cromemco, and noted programmer John Draper (also known as Captain Crunch).

Since that time, the term hacker has developed a somewhat negative connotation in the public as someone who breaks into computers or networks. However, a core group of hackers still view themselves as creative, unconventional problems solvers united by adherence to a common set of values known as the hacker ethic.

The Hacker Ethic

In his seminal 1984 book on hacker culture, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, journalist Steven Levy identified the ideals of access, freedom of information, and improvement of quality of life as core to the hacker ethic. While the meaning of the hacker ethic has been co-opted by various groups, most recent definitions remain consistent with the ideals Levy identified in 1984:

“Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work and using this knowledge to create new and interesting things…This is especially true when a hacker wants to fix something that (from his point of view) is broken and needs improvement.” Steven Levy describing hackers in 2012 by quoting from his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

“The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by…facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”   Eric Raymond, author of the online “Hacker Dictionary” and “How to Become a Hacker.”

“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it—often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.” Mark Zuckerberg in his letter to potential investors upon Facebook’s filing for an initial public offering, dated February 1, 2012.

The Origins of Legal Hacking

The New York Legal Hackers are the longest-lived legal hacking group. The group began at a legal hackathon held at the Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy Clinic (the BLIP Clinic) at Brooklyn Law School on Sunday April 15, 2012. At the BLIP Clinic, law students assist entrepreneurs and other creative professionals who can’t readily afford expensive legal services. The inspiration for the BLIP hackathon was two-fold: (1) the BLIP students’ and faculty’s desire for a forum to explore the legislative proposals known as SOPA and PIPA (Stop Online Piracy Act and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, respectively) from a variety of stakeholder perspectives, and with an eye to respecting innovation, and (2) the BLIP students’ desire to develop and exercise some of the skills of collaboration, ideation, entrepreneurship, development and coding, and creativity, that they saw their clients at the BLIP clinic using on a regular basis.

This first legal hackathon was well received by law students, lawyers, technologists, policy makers and entrepreneurs alike. The New York Legal Hackers group formed shortly thereafter to capitalize on the momentum generated by the hackathon. To date, the New York Legal Hackers group has held more than 15 meetings, claims more than 500 members, and held an anniversary party with more than 100 people to celebrate one year of legal hacking.

Legal hacking and legal innovation groups subsequently formed in Washington D.C., Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area in early to mid-2013.

Into fall and late 2013, groups sprung up throughout North America, and legal hackathons and similar activities continue to be held in the United States and throughout the world.

What legal hackers do and the Legal Hacker Ethic

Legal hacking groups include lawyers, law students, developers, academics, entrepreneurs, technologists and policy makers interested in the changing nature of the law and legal industry. The groups’ activities vary by meeting and by group. Many meetings are consistent with traditional MeetUp or conference activities with a guest speaker or panel discussion and questions from attendees. Legal technology demo nights, where local legal technology startups share, pitch, and demo their current or prospective projects, are common. Groups have also held “issue spotting nights,” hackathons, and other collaborative projects involving contributions from attendees. Meeting topics include technology and access to justice, design and the law, the sharing economy, the law of fashion design, broadband infrastructure, public Wi-Fi, and many others.

More than anything, the groups have a mandate to be active. Legal hackers are not content to merely talk about changing what they view as dysfunctional aspects of the legal industry and the law. They want to do something to change them.

Lea Rosen attended the first hackathon at BLIP as a law student at Rutgers Camden and wrote a review that captured the “legal hacker ethic” well. Quoting a written piece by a founder of the New York Legal Hackers group, Phil Weiss, and Jonathan Askin, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and the Director of BLIP, she wrote:

“The Legal Hackathon was ‘an introduction to an ethos, a method to improve existing legal regimes in innovative ways.’ [Wrote Weiss]…[T]he Hackathon illustrates a growing trend among [lawyers]. We are committed to the practice of law, but find the dominant ethos of law practice unsatisfactory. At best, it doesn’t convey our reasons for studying the law; at worst, it represents everything we oppose: the perpetuation of lawyers as ‘conservative wallflowers and naysayers.’ In Jonathan Askin’s words: ‘We are “yeah, but” lawyers in a “why not?” world.’ This might be how the legal establishment sees it, but the BLIP Clinic’s Hackathon made one thing very clear: [legal hackers] stand ready and able to participate in that ‘why not?’ world.”

Where are Legal Hackers?

Legal hacking groups’ have a variety of names and meet in a number of different locations in North America:

  • New York Legal Hackers
  • CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics (Stanford, California)
  • Toronto Legal Innovators Round Table
  • Boston Legal Innovation MeetUp
  • San Francisco Legal Technology MeetUp
  • DC Legal Hackers
  • Los Angeles Legal Innovation MeetUp
  • Austin Legal Tech and Legal Innovation
  • Greater Cincinnati Legal Innovation MeetUp
  • Seattle Legal Innovation and Technology MeetUp

While these groups are aware of each other and collaborate on an ad hoc basis, they are formally connected only by their adherence to the legal hacker ethic.

How can you participate?

Legal hacking and legal innovation groups are springing up all over the country. If you want to try legal hacking for yourself you can join a local group. Most groups can be found through the MeetUp website, www.meetup.com. A list of groups and other events also is on legalhackers.org.

If there’s no group near you, you can start a group. You can contact existing groups through the MeetUp website for guidance and suggestions.

If you don’t have the inclination or time to start your own group, you can apply the legal hacking skills to your work. Instead of doing what you’ve always done, try a hack instead. First, identify and separate the constituent parts of the process, system or idea you’re working with. Then, try combining these parts in unique ways to create solutions for the problem at hand or a different problem.

If you’d prefer a more technology-focused approach, you can learn to write software by taking up a coding language. Many online sites and tools can teach you, at no cost, to write code. Code Academy is a popular website that offers free training to aspiring coders on a gamified platform. Once you’ve learned one language, you can build a website or code a solution that automates a repetitive activity that you do every day or one that solves another problem you have identified.

Alternatively, try reimagining one of your standard form contracts, pleadings or even your fee agreement or engagement letter with an eye to the consumer. What are its constituent parts? How could they be combined or recombined to improve that document, another document, or your whole process?

Conclusion

The legal hacking movement is an emerging phenomenon in the legal industry. Today’s legal hackers trace their brand of hacking to the earliest hackers in the 1960s and through those that helped bring about the computer revolution in the 1970s. They have little in common with the illicit hacking frequently covered in the news. Legal hackers are committed to improving the legal system by applying the principles of creative and unconventional problem solving to challenges in legal practice and the law. Local legal hacking and innovation groups provide an opportunity to lawyers to hack problems in their individual practices and their communities at large in order to create, explore, and promote unconventional and innovative solutions.

Happy Hacking!

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About the Author

Dan Lear is an attorney at Ragen Swan PLLC and is a co-founder of the Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp Group.  He blogs at www.right-brain-law.blogspot.com.

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