Legal Hackathon Challenges Lawyers To Think Like Hackers

Lawyers' New Mandate: Think Like Hackers

Don’t just follow the law. Hack it.

That was Jonathan Askin’s challenge to an auditorium of law students, lawyers and entrepreneurs at the first ever Legal Hackathon, a day-long event held Sunday at Brooklyn Law School to help lawyers, traditionally the guardians of rules, think more like hackers, the mischief makers and problem solvers of the tech world.

“We’re 'yeah, but' lawyers in a 'why not' world,” said Askin, the director of Brooklyn Law School’s Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy Clinic (BLIP) and one of the organizers of the hackathon. “What I’m hoping to get at today is to figure out how we as lawyers stop being roadblocks and how we participate in a world moving rapidly around us.”

The answer may rest with hackers. Seen by some as insidious actors, they have been touted by Silicon Valley types and even management gurus as quick-moving innovators who come up with creative solutions to seemingly impossible tasks.

The Brooklyn Law School event highlights how traditional fields are being reshaped by new technology that requires professionals to look outside established venues to update their skills. It also showcases the extent to which hacker culture is infiltrating even the most conservative industries. The hacker ethos is being applied not only to law, but also food, education and local government.

For lawyers, the “hacker way” means abandoning the fax machines and risk-averse naysaying and mastering new online tools, as well as familiarizing themselves with the policy issues hackers have raised, said Askin. He argued that by understanding emerging technology that allows for increased collaboration and taking a cue from entrepreneurs' go-for-it mentality, lawyers can avoid becoming “wallflowers” who are “sidelined” in the information revolution brought about by the web.

“When I look around at my peers, I see 40-year-old lawyers who are still communicating via snail mail and fax machines and telephones and appearing in physical space for negotiations. That slows the legal process and makes us less relevant and makes society doubt our ability to play a quick, effective role in resolving issues,” said Askin, whose students nicknamed him MC Splinter in an homage to the ninja master who trains the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “The goal is to morph and evolve the law on one hand to better serve technologists, enterprises and society, but also harness technology so that lawyers can better service their clients.”

Jason Schultz, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Law, Technology and Public Policy clinic, said he agrees with Askin’s assertion that many lawyers need to upgrade their technological know-how. But the same could be said for any field, he countered, and the legal world already boasts its fair share of innovators and pioneers who are pushing the limits in areas of tech policy.

“Lawyers need to understand tech better, but so do educators and so do firefighters. There are lots of different professions that you could make statement about,” said Schultz. “I think this is a way people demonize lawyers to say, 'you’re in the way, get out of the way.'”

The Legal Hackathon opened with a series of discussions, such as “From e-Gov to WeGov” and “A Primer on Crowdsourced Policymaking and Fostering Civic Engagement Through Technology,” aimed at framing the ways the web can be used to craft policy, engage voters, and serve people in need of legal advice. Brooklyn Law School student Warren Allen unveiled “Hack the Act,” a collaborative online platform that allows people to “remix” a law. It allows individuals to edit and recraft a bill, then share it with others and invite them to make their own changes. Matt Hall, co-founder of Docracy, demonstrated how lawyers could use his site to post top-notch legal documents that entrepreneurs or individuals could download, use and trust.

The afternoon’s seminars were all about “taking off the training wheels,” in Askin’s words, pushing attendees to lend their legal and technical knowledge to rethinking digital issues. WhyNot CEO Emil Stefkov asked a lecture hall of entrepreneurs and aspiring lawyers how New Yorkers might work around existing legislation to crowdsource a candidate for mayor of New York. Though the audience didn't present a solution, they suggested ways Stefkov might improve his website, with features such as questionnaires prospective candidates would fill out showing where they stand on policy issues.

A representative from the Wikimedia Foundation explained how lawyers could contribute to crowdsourced online encyclopedia Wikipedia in one session. In another, BLIP Clinc members solicited feedback on PriView, an online privacy policy rating system they had developed. Tellingly, while the audience at the Legal Hackathon debated how subjectivity or defamation fears could affect PriView’s utility, the tool was being built elsewhere that very afternoon at the Wall Street Journal’s Data Transparency Weekend for programmers in downtown Manhattan.

In comparison with traditional tech hackathons that challenge engineers to build features within strict time limits, Sunday’s event featured more lawyers than coders, more suits than startup-emblazoned tees, more notetaking than coding and more Q&A than collaboration.

“This is more like being at South by Southwest and going to panels than going to a startup weekend and creating something,” said Zeb Dropkin, founder and CEO of RentHackr, a real estate website that shows what tenants are paying for their places. “I found today to be much more information immersive. It seems like it might be trying to hand the solution phase off to another time, whereas a lot of technical hackathons are specialized upfront so that the solving of whatever the problem is happens right on premises.”

Yet despite the differences, some of the attendees, which ranged from students and former Hill staffers to startup CEOs and venture capitalists, argued lawyers and hackers already have a great deal in common. Hackers wield code where lawyers wield words, but both seek to bypass limitations put in their path, said Rutgers School of Law student Lea Rosen.

“Hacking in the legal sense is probably a lot like hacking in the computer sense,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood during a panel discussion. “You’re not building something, but getting around restrictions or things you were prohibited from doing before.”

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