Takeaways from UALR Bowen’s Legal Hackathon

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of helping with Bowen Law School’s Legal Innovation Hackathon. (Go here for details.) I was there as a lawyer-advisor, I guess—tasked with helping the teams answer any legal questions they might have.

The concept was simple: Tech folks get together and use their skills to solve a legal issue (literally) overnight. There were eight teams of tech-inclined people, lawyers, and law students, each of which addressed a pressing legal issue and used various coding platforms to offer a technical solution.  The results were impressive. I conveyed my first impressions in real time on Twitter, which you can find at @sk_mcbride.


My tendency is to be a critic first and gracious afterward, an ugly trait that I am going to avoid here. So—lest my critique and questions obscure the most important takeaway, I will make it clear: This event was exciting. Every lawyer should recognize the dramatic effect that technology can have on our legal system. New technology can help bridge the justice gap. New technology can help lawyers be more effective advocates. New technology can help lawyers make money and clients save money.

We need more events like this. Lawyers must be more proactive in seeking out tech solutions. We should be leading the charge, begging tech to help us.

Despite all its promise and all its intrigue, however, we also need to think (more?) carefully about the intersection of law and tech. I walked away from the Hackathon encouraged. I also thought the Hackathon exposed a few areas that may need improvement. If the happy marriage of law and tech is good—and it is—this is where we need to work.

Technical People Have to Learn to Speak Lawyer

There were several points during the Hackathon where the forces of tech and the forces of law were two ships passing in the night. The result: The tech people designed creative, practical solutions to non-existent issues. This obviously won’t work.

The blame does not lie with either group, but I believe the solution lies with tech. Lawyers are not going to learn to code—many lawyers are not even going to learn anything. But a tech person—that person is immersed in change, enjoys it, and can thrive in it. A tech person has to be a life learner. Or a law learner, as it were.  I am confident that a coder can learn to think like a lawyer.

Note: I don’t mean that coders should learn to speak legalese. Certainly not. Legal lingo is nothing but a protectionist barrier to entry—obviously not the thing to promote when you’re trying to lower that barrier.

This is what I mean: coders and other technical people are problem solvers. It’s critical that they’re able to solve real legal problems, not problems that a tech person might think a lawyer would see.

This should be no more difficult than sharing a beer or coffee and talking candid shop. No Latin, No HTML.

People Don’t Need Another Way to Get Legal Advice or Find a Lawyer

One surprising aspect of the Hackathon was how unfamiliar some tech people were with existing tech solutions for legal issues.

Put another way: Despite the fact that there are many legal problems for which technology might offer a solution, there are some legal problems for which there are a myriad of legal solutions. When it comes to the low-hanging fruit—like internet legal advice (AVVO)  and referral services (LegalMatch, NOLO, etc.)—I think we’re good.

This issue is connected with the first. The two groups are going to have to develop meaningful conversation to understand where the good, meaningful work lies. Otherwise a lot of technical work might be mooted (see what I did there?).

So, the fact that technology exists to address a legal issue is not enough; it’s gotta be a real issue.

Technology Isn’t Helpful Unless It Can Make Someone Some Money

Based on the results of the Hackathon, the people inclined to merge tech and law are also inclined to give their work away. This is great, in a way—it’s refreshing to see the emphasis on public service. It also means that whatever those people create will be mediocre, outdated, and boring unless they can write excellent grants. It’s impossible to make and keep good technology without money.

It may be that the missing third leg of the law-tech stool is entrepreneurship.

As a small-firm, wanna-be entrepreneur-lawyer, I am bombarded with sales pitches and marketing ploys. I know better—I know that someone can’t guarantee that I rank highest in Google search rankings. I know that canned content is garbage.

But the fact that the marketers are calling me let’s me know that someone is buying. And if they’re currently buying junk, why can’t they be sold something good, something innovate and clever?

The money is there. Lawyers will buy technology, but tech people must create it to be sold.

This need not be sordid or greedy. Consider, for example, Wal-Mart. Has any other entity (including our government) done more to help the poor? (This excludes people working there, of course.) A scalable, saleable, profitable business is often the best way to help people.