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.