Coding By, For, and With Lawyers

Last year, I participated in the ABA’s inaugural hackathon. A few days later, I declared it “a resounding success,” not because of the apps it birthed but rather, because of the conversation it started. As a public interest attorney, I look at the tools given to me, the tools available to my clients, and I think, “We can do better.” The hackathon introduced me to colleagues who agree, and together we are doing something about it. Such is the hacker ethic. So five months out, what result? The following projects by hackathon alumni provide partial answers.

QnA Markup

Do you want to learn to code? Do you have an hour? Then QnA Markup is for you. QnA is a markup language for people with little or no programming experience, and I designed it specifically with attorneys in mind. It transforms blocks of text into interactive question and answer sessions (QnAs). These QnAs can be used as stand-alone expert systems or in the aid of rule-based document construction. Too much technobabble? Check out this sample QnA on how to title a law journal article. After that, visit the syntax and usage page where you can learn everything you need to become a QnA expert. Plus, the entire project is open source. Among other things, that means free.

Coding For Lawyers

Did QnA awaken your inner coder? Do you want to learn real general-purpose programming, not some quaint language limited to a handful of useful “tricks?” Well then, my hackathon teammate David Zvenyach has you covered. David is a fellow government attorney. He taught himself to code and is the author of Coding For Lawyers, a text on… well, coding for lawyers. Be sure to check out the footnotes for a good chuckle. Plus, the entire project is open source. Do you sense a pattern?

Also, David has just accepted a position at 18F where I am sure he will be doing more great work. Not sure what 18F is or why they need attorney-coders? David can explain.

Law is Code (6.S086)

William Li is another one of my teammates and a doctoral candidate at MIT. When we met, he was interested in activating a community of civic hackers. So it was no surprise when he teamed up with attorney and hackathon winner Wiliam Palin to create a project-based class as part of MIT’s winter session to do just that. Basically, it is an extended two-week hackathon aimed at producing tools to improve access to justice. From the course description:

Can computing technologies help provide access to justice, provide legal aid more effectively, or make government and the law more open? In the U.S., nearly a million people are turned away from federally funded legal aid services a year; new, scalable solutions are needed.

In 6.S086: Law is Code, small teams will learn about the challenges that legal aid organizations and public agencies face, choose a project, and develop software that addresses their need[s]…

The class has its final showcase today at 3pm EST on the MIT campus (building 32, room D463), and it is open to the public. Swing by if you are in the area. Otherwise, I am told the presentations will be streamed and recorded. The course page should have a link. And surprise, surprise, most of the class projects are being open sourced.

Public Service Law & Technology Internships

William and William’s course was such a good idea that my workplace, the Massachusetts public defender agency (CPCS), is taking a turn. This spring we have created a set of internships structured around an interdisciplinary team of law students and programmers who will effectively be performing a semester-long hackathon–improving the tools of our public defenders. If you know any MA-based students (law or tech) who would be interested, please pass on the description below.


As you can see, it has been a busy five months. Now it is time for us all to build the tools we want to see in the world. Happy coding.

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