Try (Legal) Hacking Around

J.B. Ruhl is the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law and Director of the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt University.

One piece of very good news coming out of the legal industry’s post-normal times is the rise of the “legal hackathon” movement. If you have not heard the term, don’t worry—it’s a good kind of hacking.

Legal hacking involves bringing together legal and technological experts to solve practical problems of community access to law and justice. It leverages technology to attack the so-called “martini glass” effect of how legal services are distributed: an enormous amount of spend is poured into the top where BigLaw and BigCorp mix, a small base of need is served by legal aid institutions, and the stem of small businesses and regular people, particularly those of lower-income, are priced out of the market notwithstanding their need for legal services.

How does legal hacking help those stuck in the underserved stem? By leveraging tech-based solutions to make navigating legal quandaries easier, faster, and less expensive. In a hackathon, teams of technologists, lawyers, and community leaders join together to identify an underserved “stem” need, sort out the legal content, and develop a “product,” such as a smartphone app, to help people and businesses through the problem.

Legal hacking has quickly gone global. The Legal Hackers organization (legalhackers.org) was founded in New York City in 2012 and now has more than forty chapters worldwide. But legal hackathons do not happen overnight—it takes time and effort to pull together a committed team. Here in Nashville, for example, my Vanderbilt Law School colleague Larry Bridgesmith has worked over the past two years through our Program on Law & Innovation to build a base for legal hacking. He formed the Music City Legal Hackers (mclegalhackers.org), convened meetings that grew steadily in number of participants over time, and now has us primed soon to hold our first full-on hackathon event with local pro bono technologist group Code for Nashville. Hacking can also be brought to the classroom, as our adjunct Marc Jenkins has done here for several years in his Technology in Legal Practice class, where teams of students build app products meeting needs local community organizations have identified.

There are plenty of good reasons for new lawyers to start (legal) hacking around.

First and foremost, it can serve pressing community needs. The legal industry has largely ignored the martini glass stem; it is time all lawyers take part in the awakening, and hacking is a great, fun, pro bono way to get involved.

Hacking is also a soft landing into legal technology for those (all?) lawyers who run from numbers and code. The point of a hackathon is that the lawyers don’t need to know how to build the app—that’s what the techies are there to do! But you will pick up some basic knowledge and terminology from their world and begin to appreciate the power of law+tech.

Hacking also hones your legal acumen. The techies don’t know the law or how it works the way we do, so helping them construct an app requires that you think a bit outside the box about how to dissect and explain a legal question or process.

Finally, there’s no reason you can’t bring the hacking spirit into your practice. Whether for a firm, agency, organization, or in-house department, try holding your own internal hackathons to build products to help you or your clients simplify the navigation. Of course, if you’re like me, you need to find a techie to build the app, but you’ll have gotten to know some at the hackathon!

Products that Might Come out of a Hackathon

Process guides. These help the user navigate through a process, such as appealing a ticket or contesting an eviction, by providing step-by-step questions that lead the user through the system and provide information along the way, such as what, when, and where to file an essential form.

Rights guides. These help the user understand what rights and responsibilities they have in particular contexts, such as in debt collection.

Sorting tools. These help the user determine status or eligibility, such as whether one qualifies for housing assistance or employment leave.

Form assistants. These direct the user to the appropriate form for their needs, such as a small claims filing, and then provide an online completion portal.

Matching tools. These help the user find the appropriate agency, tribunal, or assistance organization to meet their needs.

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