Legal Hackers Change the Game

By Anne Miller, Contributor

When an English apartment tower went up in flames last year, survivors scrambled to understand their rights and access services in the aftermath. Misinformation circulated on social media, Legal Futures UK reported. People who lost everything when the Grenfell Tower burned then struggled to navigate the sometimes daunting bureaucracy required to find help and support.

Enter the Legal Hackers. A Scottish chapter of the international group staged a hackathon to create an app aimed at helping victims reach the legal and government services they needed.

“There is a real challenge in coordinating these resources to ensure those who desperately need support are kept informed about the ongoing help available, and how to access it,” the local chapter told Legal Futures UK.

Founded at the Brooklyn Law School in New York City in 2012, Legal Hackers has chapters in more than 120 cities dedicated to pairing technology with the oft-staid legal community to better service the people that laws are meant to support.

“Legal Hackers, as this grassroots global organization, is in essence trying to create an open culture for legal innovation that derives from the same hacker spirit that animated the original hackers at MIT in the 50s and 60s, or animates the open information spirit of wikis,” said Jameson Dempsey, a board member who works at CodeX, the Stanford University Center for Legal Informatics in California.

It’s about “making things available, sharing knowledge and resources,” Dempsey added. “That’s really the ethos that’s propelled the Legal Hackers from this small hackathon in Brooklyn to a global movement.”

Legal-Tech Symbiosis

Legal Hackers began when a law professor at the New York City school asked his students, “How can lawyers leverage the tools and collaborative, open ethos of the technology community to anticipate and solve law and policy problems?” That lead to the first hackathon in Brooklyn, and the group grew from there.

The ideology is relatively straightforward, aimed at bringing legal and tech experts together to forge new paths in public policy, technology, and the law. Some lawyers learn to code and gain a deeper understanding of blockchain, for example, while coders or entrepreneurs might brainstorm ways to solve legal problems, create an app, or learn how the law applies to their next big idea.

Not all of their projects result in something as dramatic as helping victims of a fire that made international headlines. But their goals aren’t so modest either: to change how the world approaches the law, in our rapidly changing tech-based universe.

Lauren Mack, a board member, and one of the original Brooklyn hackers, recounted her work as a lawyer in the tech sphere. As an example of the challenges she’s encountered, she recalled the early days of blockchain development. “Issuing coin for money to someone [you] don’t know is a violation of security law unless you follow certain steps,” she said.

“The biggest concern for technologists is they don’t know what they don’t know,” she went on. “They get a cool idea, they want to build it this way, then all of a sudden the lawyer comes in and says, ‘No, no, you can’t do that.’ That can be frustrating.”

If everyone is on the same page from the start, a lot of time and frustration can be saved. That requires the tech side to understand the legal ramifications of their work, and the lawyers to understand emerging technologies, all while navigating a legal system that hasn’t always kept pace with business invention.

New Territories, New Skills

Ultimately, Legal Hackers is about helping people, and making connections. Take Victor Maranhao’s story.

A law student in the northern Brazilian city of Natal, he had an idea to create a platform for lawyers that will generate links to pertinent court decisions and news stories based on documents that were written and uploaded to the platform. Write a brief in the platform, for example, and the system, which incorporates some AI learning, will flag previous cases, find pertinent documents, and offer links to those sources. If the case was in the news, the system will automatically link to those articles as well.

Maranhao befriended another student, who studied at New York University, and learned about Legal Hackers. Together with a third lawyer, they created a Legal Hackers chapter in Natal, and then another in Sao Paolo, where they moved to work on their business idea.

“The legal environment — from the law school to the law firms to the judiciary courts — is a very, very closed community, so people that are from the law environment, they don’t interact with people from technology, but all those relations are inside the law,” Maranhao explained.

“When we first started, me and my friend, we are both lawyers, we had the idea about how to change the problem we wanted to solve, but we didn’t know how to do it,” he said. “We were always trying to find someone who was capable of doing something like that.”

Their involvement in Legal Hackers changed their mindset. “We saw that we were the ones who were supposed to do it,” he said.

So, Maranhao and his lawyer colleagues all learned to code, and have created all the code for the online platform, JurisIntel, that will serve as the centerpiece of their business. Today, they are part of an acceleration and investment program at ACE Startups, which gave them support to create their prototype, and promised another round to fund the business launch. They started testing the platform with customers at the end of November.

“That mindset to be more open-minded to a different set of skills, to be learning,” he said, “it’s a big influence from the Legal Hackers environment that I feel on a daily basis.”