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?

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