Lessons from my First LexHacks Hackathon

LexHacks brought together two professions that are rarely seen as coexisting: lawyers and computer programmers (or coders). I was fortunate enough to attend LexHacks and work with a challenge-winning team, including Canek Acosta, Daniel Elliott, Irene Mo, and Benjamin Silver. Had I been told at the beginning of the school year that I would be attending a legal hackathon, I would have laughed in disbelief. However, this opportunity was one that I will not forget because of the invaluable lessons I learned and the skills I developed during this weekend event.

Coding is no longer just for computer programmers and developers. It is becoming increasingly relevant in nearly every profession. My knowledge of coding consists of an HTML course I took almost twelve years ago. Consequently, my understanding of modern coding is akin to most law students’ understanding of the rule against perpetuities. By the end of the weekend, I concluded that all legal professionals should have a basic knowledge of coding, not just those involved in intellectual property or other technical fields.

During the course of the weekend, our team created working code for Gmail that scans the body of an e-mail as well as attachments to prevent dissemination of personally identifiable information (PII). The code stopped the e-mail from being sent and instead sent the sender two e-mails, one showing all PII highlighted, and a second with the PII redacted. Although our solution needs some fine-tuning to be an automatic plug-in, the idea that something created during a weekend could prevent an attorney from mistakenly disseminating PII is invigorating. What other solutions can be created to help attorneys become more productive, better organized, and more valuable to their firms and clients? Watching legal professionals, professional programmers, and coders work together over the weekend demonstrated that nearly anything is possible and the solutions are endless for improving the delivery of legal services.

Equally important, distance between team members is no longer a barrier to effective team communication and collaboration. Our team consisted of three Michigan State University College of Law students, including myself, working from the WeWork Chicago office, and two coders (one an MSU Law alum) working remotely from San Francisco. To facilitate team discussion and collaboration, we used a free team-communication application called Slack. Slack allowed us to have a team communication board exclusively for this project. The board consisted of a “#general” thread that allowed messages to be sent to the entire team, and also allowed for direct communication with other team members. Slack allows users to upload documents directly into the threads for other users to download and comment on. Moreover, Slack is available for Mac and PC computers, in addition to iOS and Android mobile devices. With Slack I was able to work on my computer and keep track of the conversation without needing to switch windows, or reach for my phone—notifications in the upper right hand corner of my screen briefly showed new posts. Additionally, the mobile application allowed team members to step away from the facility without being unreachable or sacrificing knowledge of the team’s activities.

Effective project management allowed our team to compete in four challenges, more than any other team. Our team used Slack to delegate tasks and keep the team informed about what we individually worked on. By delegating tasks appropriately, the law students were able to complete legal research quickly and effectively, which allowed them to work together to create decision trees for a public interest challenge. Effective project management allowed our team to fully complete two challenges, requiring the completion of legal research and working code, and create concepts for two additional challenges. Without effective project management we would not have been able to accomplish nearly as much as we did.

For the three law students, this was our first hackathon of any kind. We pulled together as a team and created presentations to show our ideas and code to the other teams, judges, and anyone watching the live stream. None of us knew what to expect before we entered the building and began brainstorming ideas. We tackled four challenges and came out victorious on the PII challenge. I could not be more proud of what our team accomplished in such a short amount of time. Despite my reservations and lack of hackathon experience, I emerged with a new set of skills, a desire to learn coding, and an unbeatable eagerness to tackle my next legal hackathon.

Photo by Andy Ninh.

About Gary Gonzalez

Gary Gonzalez
Gary Gonzalez is a rising 2L at Michigan State University College of Law. He graduated from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Political Science. Gary is interested in studying international business law and intellectual property law.

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