Results of the ABA Journal’s Hackcess to Justice Hackathon

What could be better than a room full of programmers, lawyers, and legal technology buffs? That room, dedicated to using legal technology to improve access to legal services! That was the setting at the American Bar Association Journal’s first annual Hackcess to Justice, held August 7-8 during the ABA’s annual meeting in Boston. The goal was to use technology to expand access to justice, following up on the Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) December 2013 Summit Report, which set forth five primary ways technology can be used to increase access to justice and legal services:

  1. Document assembly.
  2. Use of mobile technology.
  3. Expert systems to apply knowledge to the facts of a case.
  4. State-by-state legal portals.
  5. Increased efficiency.

Jim Sandman, president of LSC, introduced the problem at the start of the hackathon: the mission of the hackathon was to use technology to provide “justice for all,” as school children say every day. Sandman continued, about the problem of inadequate access to legal services, “I’ve never heard anyone … who isn’t a lawyer say ‘the answer isn’t technology, it is a lawyer.'” (As Peter Campbell blogged at Techcafeteria about the hackathon, take a few minutes from your day to watch Sandman’s speech).

Many participated in a brainstorming session that followed the introductory talks, discussing ideas ranging from apps to help pro se litigants represent themselves, such as by determining indigency or helping people navigate the rules of civil procedure, to improving speech-recognition software to allow it to help with questions about legal services, to apps and expert systems that help attorneys provide unbundled legal services and/or pro bono legal services. Some of the participants came with ideas and game plans for the apps or web resources they wanted to build.

For instance, Bill Palin, a Massachusetts attorney whose app won the hackathon, said that he came up with the idea for PaperHealth after his brother needed to create a health care proxy at a hospital. The iOS app, which is free and will be available at Apple’s App Store, allows people to create legally binding health care proxies, and non-binding living wills (non-binding because Massachusetts law doesn’t recognize living wills). Palin said that he plans to create a version of PaperHealth tailored to the laws of each state, and has begun reaching out to the directors of legal services across the country. Palin also indicated that he plans to expand PaperHealth into a tool that hospitals and emergency rooms can use with patients.

Second prize at the hackathon went to disastr, which is a mobile app providing information on legal and practical preparations for disasters, and legal services after disasters occur. Disastr is available at, and was built by two attorneys, Matthew Burnett, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network, and Adam Friedl, Program and Special Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net.

Third prize went to Due Processr, a web-based app that helps a user calculate whether they are indigent under Massachusetts law, and also helps a user determine, again under Massachusetts law, a criminal sentence and parole eligibility date. Due Processr was built by David Colarusso, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, William Li, a MIT computer science Ph.D. candidate, and David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia.

Colarusso wrote a post about his hackathon experienceRobert Ambrogi, one of three judges at the hackathon, blogged on the hackathon here, and Victor Li reported for the ABA Journal here.

It seems that the answer to the problem posed by Jim Sandman should involve both technology and lawyers interested in using technology to improve both access to legal services and the ability of lawyers to efficiently and effectively offer legal services. At the start of the hackathon, when the crowd was asked which considered themselves programmers and which attendees were lawyers, more hands went up for lawyers – and a few people kept their hands up for both. That is a promising sign, because based on the products of the hackathon, legal services will benefit from increasing the number of lawyers who want to design or program applications.

 Feature image: “Designer develop a mobile application usability and drawing” from ShutterStock.

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