What Does Legal Hacking Mean for Practicing Lawyers?

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Asking that question after the ABA TECHSHOW’s hackathon/appathon is what landed me in Kansas City, Missouri, for a few days for the Law Schools, Technology & Access to Law conference at the UMKC School of Law. Yesterday, I watched law students present their prototypes at the end of a “jam session,” which was similar to what I saw while on the hackathon panel at TECHSHOW. That’s what has me wondering whether the legal hackers have much to offer practicing lawyers — especially solo and small-firm lawyers.

The thing is, Lawyerist has always been home to a community of innovative lawyers. I started writing Lawyerist (then SoloSmallTech) because the existing software options for solos were terrible. I quickly found that I wasn’t the only solosmall trying to figure out a better way to practice law. Many others have been active in the comments, and some have gotten their own bylines over the years. We’re all essentially hacking the law, one practice (our own) at a time.

Then, within the last few years, a “legal hackers movement” has taken shape, largely driven by professors Jonathan Askin at Brooklyn Law and Dazza Greenwood at MIT. It is trying to move beyond law schools, but it still has its roots there and many of the “members” of the various legal hacker groups are current or former students.

So there is the usual disconnect between the practice and the academe. This could be a problem. Deep knowledge of a problem — especially a legal problem — is necessary in order to craft an adequate solution. Deep knowledge that experienced lawyers have but law students and law professors mostly don’t.

That’s probably why most of the teams I saw at TECHSHOW and at UMKC Law’s “prototype jam” were not working on the sort of legal problems designed to solve problems for practicing lawyers and their clients. Instead, they were tackling big civic projects, like a web app that would allow developers to determine what sort of building they could construct on land they are standing on. Or a structure for organizing open data from smart cities’ many sensors, such as stoplights, water projects, video streams, etc. Or a framework for a way to give people and businesses a “municipal ID” that would transform cumbersome things like applying for a liquor license into a single button push.

Nearly all were prototypes, not functioning solutions. The students I saw were not solving legal problems so much as they were thinking about how to solve legal problems and prototyping the solutions they came up with. Only one of the four teams at the UMKC prototype jam (pdf) had taken any material steps toward an actual functioning solution. This project was a “term sheet” for small business founders who are not planning to seek venture capital to use with their lawyer. So far, the two women working on this project have gotten help from Neota Logic to start turning their work into an actually-useful tool. It is also the only tool I’ve seen so far that shows any promise for being useful to practicing lawyers and clients, probably because their advisor represented businesses for many years before becoming a law professor.

In short, then, I haven’t seen much to indicate that legal hackers are bringing about a revolution in the way solo and small-firm lawyers practice law. Not yet, anyway. That seems to be because one of the primary things legal hackers need is well-described problems to solve. And right now, legal hackers seem to be getting their projects mainly from municipalities and a few “thought leaders” within the academe — people who generally don’t have the kind of deep knowledge about legal problems facing solo and small-firm lawyers and their clients that would be necessary to come up with a list of problems to solve.

I think we can change that. It’s not like there is an official list of projects in need of legal hackers. If you know of a problem you think would be worth the time of a clinic or a group of legal hackers, put it somewhere online so that people can give feedback and flesh out the issue, and so that I can link to it. (Post it in our forum, for example.) Then let me know about it, and I will put together a list of projects in need of legal hackers.

Featured image: “white hat on a white background” from Shutterstock.

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  • Jason Gershenson

    Really glad to see this acknowledged. Having been to several legal hacker events, including my own that I’ve hosted, I’ve been hesitant to encourage discussions on ‘hacking’ small firm & solo practice. The prevailing interests seem to be around organizing civic data, AI, or new philosophical approaches to the overall practice of law. The excitement of groundbreaking technology or data usage seems to overshadow needs in the office and the lawyer-client relationship.

  • myshingle

    When I clicked on the forum link to see whether any legal hacking projects had been listed, the first article that popped up was “How Can I Tell If My Client Is Crazy?” It was a legitimate forum question, not a hacking suggestion, but it is a good idea for a hack and would save many new solos the time, expense and even potential malpractice of accepting a nutty client. It could be stocked with data from real lawyers analyzing characteristics of crazy clients, and be trained to “machine learn” such that the program would take into account those characteristics going forward, and perhaps help identify or define others characteristics of crazy clients that aren’t so obvious.

  • Walker

    The bottom line is that the same thing that makes this hard is what keeps solos in business — if it can be coded, you are doomed. There’s an awful lot that solos do that is simply too granular, diverse, and complex (in the sense of the number of possible variables at play, not in the sense of brainpower required to grok) for a coded solution to be cost-effective.

    The solo today lives in the niche that forms between LegalZoom and the “full service law firm” where the partners have figured out how that they can buy talent cheap and price it high so long as they can turn the inventory over enough each year. Few is any legal hacks will ultimately benefit solos because, by definition, they are about repetitive tasks — about turning greasy spoons and roadside diners into standardized, narrow menu items so that billions and billions can be served at low prices. That’s the antithesis of what you need a lawyer for — if a particular kind of matter or legal function can be defined so well that the solution set can be coded, you’ve just marked it for extinction, because nobody needs a lawyer for anything that predictable.

    So it’s not just that academics and law students are clueless about practice realities, it’s also that there are a class of activities in every field where the Taylerist scientific management approach fails because it ignores the ecology of the problem: where it occurs, who depends on it, how much a solution costs, etc.

  • Alex

    Kind of a re-post of one of my earlier questions to the forum, but I’d love to see an online equivalent of the pc-only “formtool” program, preferably something that works with the gravitate plugin to wordpress, or really any database. There still isn’t a great way for a solo/small to generate consistent documents from a client generated form entry, if they use a mac. Maybe zapier as a workaround?

  • Alex

    Also, I think some sort of permanent text message app for parties to a protection order would be a good idea to try out. What if every time the respondent texted the petitioner, some neutral third party got a copy of the record? That way if they were threatening the petitioner, the court/victim advocate/attorney could get a copy of the text and violate them in real time.

    Broader point: it’s still a pain to have clients pull data from their phones to use in court. It’s an area where (a) the tech for getting data off a phone sucks; and (b) unless your client can articulate how the information was pulled off the phone (which makes them smarter than my clients), it’s hard to satisfy the rules of evidence, if the other attorney really pushes, or the judge is skeptical.

  • Paul Spitz

    The legal hacking I see is not lawyers trying to figure out how to do something better, it’s startup founders thinking they can skip hiring a lawyer and just find a hack for forming their Delaware corporation, or handling a seed round, or doing a SaaS license. They think that Google will help them find a free alternative to the experience, judgment, and skill that lawyers develop through law school and years of practice.

  • David

    Can you define “legal hacking’ so we have a common base for discussion?

    • From LegalHackers.org:

      Legal Hackers is a global movement of lawyers, policymakers, technologists, and academics who explore and develop creative solutions to some of the most pressing issues at the intersection of law and technology.

      It’s not a particularly helpful definition, but I don’t think legal hackers are interested in getting caught up in semantics. “Creative solutions to legal problems” is more concise, but hacking is hard to define. Often it involves technology. Sometimes it involves a cereal-box prize. Fundamentally it really is just using outside-the-box thinking to solve problems.

  • The general tech developer and “hacker” understandably doesn’t have a strong grasp of what’s needed by the solo/small law firm and focuses more on the consumer-end of things. They will build what benefits them as clients more so than for the lawyer and how he/she operates within the firm. That’s not to say that technologists aren’t eager to “hack” the system for solo/small firms, but we’re just not seeing it at hackathons.

  • Phil Weiss

    Sam, you may want to look at some of the non-Askin/Greenwood communities that, in many cases, are thinking and creating on well-defined issues. Blockchain for instance:
    doing: http://www.meetup.com/StockholmLegalHackers/events/223077016/

    In any event, I really appreciate this sentiment–thanks for offering to get more issues to us. We like issue spotting, but we like issue-solving more.