Legal Hackathons: Innovation Labs for the Legal Industry

I’ll be mentoring at a legal hackathon in Los Angeles on October 24th and 25th, and it really got me thinking about why these hackathons are so very important to the legal industry. There is a particular point I’d like to make about how and why these hackathons are driving innovation in our industry, but first, for those unfamiliar with what a legal hackathon is, let me start with an explanation.

A legal hackathon is an event that usually takes place over a weekend and involves attorneys, developers, designers, marketers, and entrepreneurs coming together in a room and deciding to build something that will have a positive impact on the legal industry. Depending on the preferences of the organizers of such events, a hackathon can have a certain theme or can be left completely open for participants to determine what they would like to build. Typically, the hackathon starts with a couple of short talks where a theme or potential topics are introduced. Topics and themes can be aimed at solving particular problems such as producing solutions that improve transactional law, or addressing housing issues for low income persons, or simply taking a law firm operations problem such as improving tracking of couriers for last minute filings. In any case, participants are encouraged to do as much as they can in a weekend. I have seen some teams come up with working software prototypes while others simply provide business plans or PowerPoint presentations discussing their proposed solution to a problem. But again, why is this important? Well simply put, because the growing phenomenon called a legal hackathon is a popup innovation lab that is having a positive impact on the industry. Here’s what I mean.

The legal industry has not been known for being one in pursuit of innovations that can improve access to justice and increase competition  (though I would argue that is changing). Instead, most people think that the legal industry is steeped in tradition and often gets pulled into contemporary times kicking and screaming and longing for the good ol’ days. Many people blame lawyers as the core problem but I don’t necessarily agree. You see, it’s not so much the lawyers as much as their training and traditions that are to blame. I would go even further and argue that the biggest challenge to pursuing innovations in the legal industry is really precedent.

As you are all aware, the very training a lawyer goes through in law school starts with looking to the past for their answers and using past decisions to help determine outcomes on similar future cases. In addition, much of what lawyers do on a daily basis is mitigate risk. Those two things right there, those are the two things that really get in the way of pursuing innovation.  So why are these two qualities considered impediments to innovation. That’s because pursuing innovation is almost exactly the opposite of what I described above and that can be difficult for someone who has been trained otherwise.

In order to pursue some innovation for business you almost have to believe that your imagination is your own special crystal ball that lets you catch a glimpse of how things will be. You have to have vision of the future, determination and a strong desire to go against the grain. Pursuing innovation often means that you are taking a guess at the direction the industry will head, or creating something so groundbreaking that the industry will follow you there. This requires you to embrace risk in a huge way because the reality is that no one has a crystal ball nor an ability to see the future and you will be contributing lots of time and money to build something that may or may not resonate with others. You see pursuing innovation is almost the opposite of what the industry teaches lawyers to do. Therein lies the challenge for our industry and is also the reason why legal hackathons are so important.

Legal hackathons are opportunities for lawyers to shape the future of the industry. If you are a lawyer who can code, then you absolutely must attend one. If you can’t code, then attend one anyway and know that there is something inspiring about joining a team of creative people who want to contribute something positive to the profession. When I mentor at the events, I see a positive change in the lawyers in the room. They are working with people who don’t fully understand all of the regulatory challenges the industry faces, nor do they fully understand the processes that they want automate, or change and lawyers are not only able to help them understand those things but also contribute ideas on how to improve them. While this alone is not all that different from their regular jobs, the way their contributions will be used certainly is.

For all the hackathons I have attended I have seen several legal tech companies launched months after the event. Many of these companies were inspired by the ideas at these legal hackathons are now out in the real world generating real business. A legal hackathon is a popup innovation lab for the legal industry and one that is having a positive impact. If you are interested in catching a glimpse of what the future holds for the legal industry, your best bet is to find it at one of these events and be a part of that change. If this blog post has inspired you to think about attending a legal hackathon, here are some links to popular legal hacker Meetup groups in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. A simple search for “legal hackers Meetup [your city]” will no doubt turn up results near you. If not, start one yourself and help create the future of law.

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