Disruption Is So Yesterday

At the International Legal Hackers Summit this summer, there was very little talk about disruption– and that’s a compliment, not a dis. While a wide variety of legal groups – from bar associations to industry groups – are convening panels and commissions on the future of law and disruption by outsiders Legal Hackers don’t talk about “disruption” anymore (if they ever did). They just do it

I wasn’t there at the founding of Legal Hackers but I’ve been involved since late 2013. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Reinvent Law New York City about the then-fledgling movement, and have written for the ABA’s Law Practice Today about the group. And I’ve since written articles along a similar theme: “What lawyers can learn from hackers,” “Where and how lawyers can learn to code,” among others. And I was inspired to help bring the hacker ethic to law and founded my own group, the Seattle Legal Innovation and Technology MeetUp.

The first legal hackathon was held at Brooklyn Law School (“BLS”) in 2012. Organized largely by Professor Jonathan Askin and student Phil Weiss, the hackathon was an attempt to bring the hacker ethic of unconventional problem-solving, hands-on imperative, and emphasizing doing over talking, to legal. Like most “first-time” events held at a law school the BLS hackathon got some nice press coverage and generated positive energy but was quickly forgotten as students returned to learning to be lawyers and others got distracted.

A year or two later, when many of the students involved in that event graduated, they, like many of their colleagues at other law schools, found no job opportunities. Frustrated not only by their unemployment, but by a system that dressed them up with no place to go, these young lawyers started the first Legal Hackers chapter in New York City. A chapter started in Washington DC shortly thereafter and by late 2013 chapters emerged in major cities throughout the US. Today, the organization boasts 40 chapters across five (and soon to be six) continents, with thousands of members.

Throughout this change, legal Hackers is staying true to its original hacker ethic, they’re not talking about disruption. They’re pushing it. And they’re perfectly positioned to do it. As an entirely volunteer-run organization they bring a community-centric, grassroots-style approach instead of the top-down bureaucracy of other large legal groups or corporations.

The fruit of this movement speaks for themselves. Groups have organized, facilitated, or otherwise been a part of hackathons, legal-themed Startup Weekend events, SXSW panels, and even a drone-themed BBQ. These events have resulted in dozens of new legal technology projects designed to address everything from limiting liability in the event of a restaurant mishap to making legal data more open and accessible.

The 2016 Summit continued in this vein and covered topics from artificial intelligence, to the block chain, to transparency. Participants drew cartoons and dissected Charles Dickens’ Bleak House drawing insight on what legal provocateurs of the 21st-century can learn from those of the 19th.  Speakers and attendees hailed from all over the world: Columbia, Chile, India, England, Scotland, the United Kingdom, as well as all over the United States. The group also discussed how to bring attention to Legal Hacker chapters, increase membership, and how this wily, anarchy-inclined bunch should “govern” themselves and the rapidly growing movement.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Summit was how much the disparate and geographically diverse group of attendees and speakers has in common. And this is precisely why the movement has exploded. Lawyers all over the world –regardless of their legal system, regardless of their practice area, regardless of whether they are academics, policy makers, or practitioners, — recognize that technology provides a tremendous opportunity for both small scale and systemic changes in law.

The second International Legal Hackers Summit was a huge success, but more importantly, it represented a birthday for the group and an indication that it’s moved from a few students with the desire to find jobs and to change things a little bit, to a global movement with significant potential. And I don’t think that trend is likely to change. Legal Hackers aren’t stopping for permission or asking if disruption is coming. They’re seizing opportunities and making the change. Looking not to precedent, as most lawyers do, but to the future.

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