Today, it is the execution of legal-service delivery that allows attorneys to differentiate themselves. The announcement of the LexHacks winners in Chicago illustrated this. Each team that won a challenge was recognized as having achieved superior execution for its solution to improve the delivery of legal services.
Over forty participants, sponsors, and organizers gathered at WeWork River North on June 6, 2015, to kick-off the 36-hour event. Despite being familiar with the concept of hackathons, I had never participated in one—let alone a legal hackathon. The energy in the room was of nervous excitement, as the vast majority of the others in the room found themselves in a similar situation. I was especially curious to figure out just how helpful my introductory coding knowledge would be to developing software solutions. My teammates included two fellow Michigan State University College of Law students (Dan Elliott and Gary Gonzales), and two developers working remotely from San Francisco (Ben Silver and Canek Acosta, an MSU Law alumnus).
Since two of my team members were working remotely, we used Slack, a communication platform, to communicate with each other. First, we developed a timeline of tasks we needed to complete for each challenge and assigned tasks based on each member’s skill set. This allowed us to complete each task in an efficient manner. While our two developers worked on the code-heavy challenges, we law students did legal research for our other challenges. By early Saturday evening, my team had software applications ready for testing and debugging. We left WeWork that night with our tasks complete ahead of schedule.
On Sunday, the five hours we had to complete our solutions for each challenge passed quickly. I took the lead to submit each of our solutions. Our team used every minute we could to improve our solutions and then raced the clock to submit the solutions on time. The last 15 minutes before the deadline felt like the last 15 minutes of a law school exam. Soon after, each team had to give a private presentation to a challenge-sponsor judge for each solution submitted. These private presentations were an opportunity for the team to showcase their software solution to the judge.
Our team submitted solutions to four challenges. We fully developed two submissions into software applications, while the other two were concept-pitches. One of our fully developed solutions won first place for the eVantage Services challenge. The eVantage Services challenge requested a Microsoft Outlook add-in to “scan the email subject, body, and text-based attachments for [personally identifiable information], warning the user if [PII was] found.” However, after discussing the challenge with eVantage’s judge, Brian Brown, we determined that a more efficient solution for the purposes of the hackathon would be to develop the application in Google.
Despite our team’s significant legal-research efforts, our two concept-pitches fell short on execution. Our team was unable to demonstrate a working solution—the hallmark of a true hackathon. Our winning solution, on the other hand, went beyond concept and we were able to demonstrate to the challenge sponsor judge that our solution worked.
Our project management having served us well, we expected smooth sailing through the demonstration of our solutions. For the private presentation of our solution to the eVantage Services’ challenge, our team developed a short PowerPoint with screenshots of the Google application in use. However, when the judge asked, “Does this application work for Outlook?,” the rest of our presentation was developed on-the-fly.
I had two major realizations that sold our application to the judge. First, because we developed a Google Apps Script, the application was shareable and useable on any computer. Second, the code allowed the user to customize the application to change the sender’s email address used to scan for PII. Therefore, as long as the user entered the same email address used for Microsoft Outlook, our application worked for Outlook, and similarly, on any email platform.
The real test was when eVantage’s judge asked to us to demonstrate our application with his email address. We set it up with his email address, ran our application, and waited for the results. In an instant, he received the results on his iPhone. We had a winning LexHacks solution.
Another team submitted a working solution to the eVantage challenge as well. What distinguished our solution was our ability to adjust on the fly and produce the results the challenge sponsor sought.
In addition to participating on LexHacks team, the hackathon provided other great insights and experiences.
LexHacks was about embracing the use of legal technology in the delivery of legal services, specifically outside of the corporate field. In pro-bono or low-bono legal services, attorneys must figure out how to serve the greatest number of clients with the fewest resources. Two of the challenge-sponsors at LexHacks, Michigan Legal Help (MLH) and Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), are state-wide websites that help provide legal resources to consumers who may not be able to afford legal services or do not qualify for federally-funded free legal services. The entire $2000 of MLH’s and ILAO’s public-interest challenges was crowdfunded through generous donations. One of the most rewarding parts of the weekend was being able to participate in those two challenges and to see the solutions other teams developed for MLH and ILAO.
Another great part of the experience at LexHacks were the people I met. The team that worked next door to our team for the weekend were three developers, none with legal experience. This team produced the winning solution for MLH’s challenge to create a gamified legal health check-up. Additionally, I was impressed with the team of Stephanie and Alyssa Romeo—one sister a law student and the other a developer. Their team went head-to-head with my team in three challenges and they claimed victory in NexLP’s challenge to detect emotions in emails.
I was very pleasantly surprised to see a number of women at LexHacks, including law students, attorneys, developers, and those who fell into more than one category. As a mathematics and economics dual-degree student, I have often found myself in a room of 30 men with only one or two other women (or three, if I was lucky). That was not the case at LexHacks.
Finally, LexHacks gave me the opportunity to talk to alumni from MSU Law. The opportunity cost of taking the “non-traditional” approach to law school to focus on legal technology and the delivery of legal services and foregoing some of the more “traditional” extracurricular activities has, and continues to be, nerve-racking at times. However, being able to meet and talk with successful MSU Law alumni who took similar paths helped relieve and reassure me.
LexHacks was a great introduction into legal hackathons and I look forward to participating in future events.