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A First Needed Hack: Lawyer as API Key

§ August 31st, 2010 § Filed under Firm Opinion, Legal Hacking § No Comments

There’s a pretty neat article over at Bruce MacEwen’s blog “Adam Smith Esq,” giving some of the pretty awe inspiring stats on the behemoth that is CPA Global, a firm that’s raised $700 million just this past spring. Essentially, the business is built around legal outsourcing — finding ways of reducing the reducible tasks of the legal business by farming it out to cheaper labor and automated systems. The business strategy ends up being pretty straightforwards: either bypass traditional law firms completely by marketing to enterprises, or contracting with law firms to automate some of their services.

This is, of course, mirrored on the more microscale by the automated software that can take a case and process the entire matter from start to finish. They’ve got some horrendously designed websites — and are involved in some pretty shady legal trolling, but their use is growing and the businesses that support them are booming.

The outcome, both on the large and the small scale, is the same. Increasingly, technology makes lawyers — and the law firms that collect them — merely points of access to the legal system. Once a machine is filing forms under a human name, or the lion’s share of legal work is being outsourced into disaggregated non-specialist workers, the fact that a lawyer is needed is an incidental requirement of the system. Effectively, their name just serves the role of authorization: a recognized pass that allows others to plug into the system. Despite the businesses that illustrate it, this reframing of the lawyer as simply a point of access is a great one, and suggests a thought about how legal hacking might be made possible.

In the technical space, the kind of grassroots innovation and hacker culture that made the internet such a profoundly generative and exciting space depended crucially on third-party innovation. The fact that it was easy for anyone to come along and experiment with code that they had designed allowed third-parties to find new users and applications for the computer that were completely unexpected.

However, the platform of the legal computer doesn’t have the same affordances as the digital one. If nothing else, the API keys are prohibitively expensive ($150,000+ and 3 years) and the hackerspaces at the forefront take a huge period of time to become part of (7+ years to partner) which prevents the same backwaters culture of amateur hacking to emerge. And despite having the skills, certification, and training to be a legal developer, you still don’t have the same freedom that you do in the digital space.

So, then, the zeroth hack that must occur before all else, in some sense, is this one: how can we provide those conditions for such a culture to emerge? How do you make the API keys widely available for experimentation and amateur development? What things can you put in place to encourage that activity to occur, all else being equal?


§ August 27th, 2010 § Filed under News § No Comments

Wow, so it’s been awhile. I’m writing here from the new world headquarters of Robot Robot and Hwang in beautiful, sunny Berkeley, California. The senior partners are being moved over on the bed of a truck from Boston as I write this, and we’re leased a gorgeous new office space in an Oakland server farm (we’re down the hallway from some friendly servers that run a neat little mom-and-pop web hosting service). As our partners start spinning their hard drives and getting plugged in with the area, you can expect that we’ll be posting more regularly from here on in.

In any case, while we’ve been on hiatus with the move — we’ve gotten some fair questions from the boys over at the ABA as to what exactly it is that RRH is doing, and what we’re looking to do in the coming months. The partners have asked me convey their view on this publicly, so I figure it’s worth setting down here on the blog.

In brief, RRH is premised on the idea that the law — inclusive of the law itself as well as the practice of it — is a type of a computer in the technical sense of the term: a programmable machine that receives input, stores and manipulates data/information, and provides output in a useful format.

Beyond being a neat metaphor to just consider, such an analogy opens the ground to take action on three things:

First, to mine the data itself. If law concerns the manipulation of data, there is room to bring in a universe of techniques that have been developed from other fields in dealing with and better understanding large datasets. From RRH’s perspective, this includes everything from statistical analysis and machine learning to graph theory and others.

Second, to creatively design applications that experiment with the legal computer. The processes of the law define a framework for what is permissible. However, creative engineering and development can design novel programs that are possible within existing frameworks and create entirely new behavior. The invention of the modern corporation, for instance, is perhaps the best example of this programming. The creation of “real” programs — like the introduction of peer-to-peer sharing technology — can also play a role in disrupting the typical operation of the legal computer.

Third, to bring (digital) technology itself into the operation of the legal computer. Insofar as the law has traditional methods that process and manipulate data, the much improved information technology of the past decade may be useful in augmenting or supplanting those traditional methods. It might also play a role in stabilizing the system as a whole against the efforts of actors that are deploying this technology to their advantage (I’m thinking here of automated collections law firms).

Our mission with all these three is to prototype on, advance the progress of, and provide thinking about how each of these elements plays out in practice. Hope that helps to clear things up! Feel free to leave any questions. In any case, we’re excited to get rolling — keep an eye on this space.