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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.
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The boys and girls over at ABAJournal are reporting on the dramatic emergence of lawyer-entrepreneurs chomping up huge amounts of cash to compete with law firms in a big way even as the economy continues to tank. Combined with the ongoing trend of Biglaw partners leaving their cozy homes to spin up smaller, more maneuverable firms, it’s the opinion of senior partners here at RRH (and some of our collaborators) that we’re finally approaching a big, bad, rootin’-tootin’ High Noon style shootout on a global scale in the coming few years. On one side, the still-powerful, still-highly-respected-but-slow incumbents. On the other, the relatively-nimble-and-fresh challengers.
For legal hackers and supporters of legal hacking, there’s both ideological and pragmatic reasons to get into this fight. Not on any one side, but on creating applications and services that aid both sides.
Ideologically, it’s clear at this early stage that neither side of this fight has it quite where the legal hacker wants it yet. Incumbents are a natural opponent since they are relatively less progressive with regards to technology. But, the challengers are only partially on the side of legal hacking. While wanting to update the legal system with shiny new hardware, it’s clear that they largely want to just replicate the same old services and activities, but just cheaper, faster, and more efficiently (as indicated by some of the strongest boosters on this front). That’s pretty narrow thinking, and RRH thinks that it’s evident in how little gets talked about innovating on top of the law among both incumbents and challengers. It’s clear in the lack of real research and development even as the two teams gear up for a clash.
That being said, the conflict itself fuels a demand for the kind of research and development that legal hackers want. Challengers are looking for new ways to outflank incumbents, and incumbents are looking for ways to plug holes against the threats of challengers. Effectively, there’s a meta-market emerging to demand legal arms dealing, early-stage innovation for products that can be scaled-up and put into play in the emerging conflict over legal services. In some ways, this meta-market gets around the oft-cited problem that it looks like clients really aren’t playing a role in pushing things ahead. The very nature of competition over market share between incumbents and challengers creates the engine for technological development to occur, regardless of what clients are looking for.
Beyond being a great opportunity from the business angle, the disruptive aspects of supporting both sides opens a wedge for broader thinking and innovation to enter, so it’s worth finding ways to grease the wheels of collision. Engineering the proper tools can permit a disruptive and productive conflict between business models to deepen, but it can also cause the nature of the conflict itself to change.
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?