Correspondence: Letters on the Legal Hacker

§ May 16th, 2012 § Filed under Correspondence, Legal Hacking § No Comments

The term “legal hacker” and “legal hackathon” have been bandied about for some time now, and its use seems to have gone through a bit of a renaissance in the past few months in the legal technology space.

RR&H views this development with some mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s great. Awareness about the increasing intersections between computer code and the law require some kind of brand – and any common brand that helps spread the word is alright in our book. “Hacker” is cool and a bit subversive, and we’d be lying if we didn’t say that was alright by us.

On the other hand, to be honest – it’s intellectually flabby. No one at all seems to have a cohesive, concise framework for what, indeed, legal “hacking” is or would imply. No one is at all sure if the idea can weather sustained discussion and argument. At present it seems to gesture vaguely at a not entirely coherent jumble of people, practices, technologies, business models, educational approaches, skill sets, and much more.

The obvious question, then, is whether or not it is actually a useful category. Does it describe something truly new? Is it just a weak attempt to paste a neat title onto an industry in flux (or decline, depending on your view)? Are there more effective ways of explaining or describing the space that we’re in? We’re not honestly sure ourselves.

One thing seems clear though: there’s a need to have a better ongoing dialogue about these issues that steps back from the daily humdrum of the latest product or company acquisition.While people like Richard Susskind and the late Larry Ribstein have laid some of the intellectual groundwork – there’s room to stage an ongoing conversation online with a broader scope of participants and a quicker pace of publication.

We’ll be doing exactly that.

Starting later in May, we’ll begin publishing — once a week — a series of long-format open letters between us and various friends and collaborators on the concept of the legal hacker. These likely won’t be people that you’ve heard before in the space – and sometimes won’t even be people in legal practice at all. The simple idea is just to talk over these ideas in-depth with as many people as possible, with an aim of clarifying and strengthening the thinking around the intersections of legal practice and technology.

Our first correspondent is a good friend and collaborator of RR&H Lea Rosen, a brilliant activist and researcher working at the intersection of human rights, technology law, and policy. She’s previously worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Evgeny Morozov, the National Lawyers Guild‘s AnoNLG project, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania. She’s a vigorous skeptic of the entire category of “legal hacking,” and so in RR&H’s estimation is precisely the place where we want this discussion to start.

There’s no particular agenda for the discussion here, any defined schedule, or any structured list of participants. This is a conscious design choice. The idea is to start broadly and focus in as particular issues or points of content that catch our interest. We’ll bring in more correspondents as the need arises or as people get in touch with us to contribute.

The ultimate result is simple, but we think valuable: a set of commentaries that report on the current state of affairs in legal practice, and make the effort to fit these developments into a more coherent, useful, and comprehensible framework. The hope is to come to some better understanding of what “legal hacking” does or could mean for the practice of law. Whether this discards “legal hacker” entirely or maintains it, remains up in the air. We’re excited to see where it goes.

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