At “Hackcess to Justice” last week in Boston, lawyers and developers spent two days hacking away at a “technological-enabled solution” to improve access to justice. Sponsored by the ABA Journal and hosted by Suffolk Law School in Boston, Hackcess to Justice is just one of several hackathons that have made their way into the legal community. Here are five nifty things to know about the event, which abutted the 2014 ABA Annual Meeting.
1. Genesis of the legal hackathon. One of the first well-known legal hackathons was organized by the Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy Clinic (BLIP) in 2012. The purpose of the Brooklyn Law #HacktheAct hackathon was to envision a better design for intellectual property law and policy. Using a platform called Docracy, participants could create, remix and collaborate on IP policy initiatives. In the words of the clinic’s director, one of the aims was to “figure out how we as lawyers stop being roadblocks and how we participate in a world moving rapidly around us.” That principal carried the course of Hackcess to Justice.
2. Hacking to benefit the public good. “The goal of this exercise is to simplify things, [to] make it easier for those who do not have a lawyer,” explained Jim Sandman, Executive Director of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), in his kickoff address. Last year’s LSC Technology Summit Report, which pointed to five areas where technology could help solve issues of access, was the inspiration for Hackcess to Justice. As a result, participants included a number of representatives from local and national law-related public interest organizations.
3. Collaboration is key. Following opening remarks, hackathon participants gathered to share ideas via an impromptu brainstorming session and to join teams. David Zvenyach, General Counsel for the Council of the District of Columbia, took notes on a Hackpad — a cloud-based software program for collaborative note-taking. Brainstorming ideas included an indigent determination calculator; a program to identify which court to file in; using Siri for legal intake; and a compilation of resources for pro bono attorneys. From there, the teams formed and dispersed for hacking. Throughout the two days, the ABA provided updates using ChallengePost, a platform for online competitions and software sharing.
4. Innovation afoot. Participants were under a strict deadline of 32 hours to develop their hack, encouraging quick and creative solutions. When the deadline hit, participants uploaded their final projects to ChallengePost (view them here), revealing them to the public:
- PaperHealth, an app that provides a “quick way to create healthcare proxy and living wills”
- disastr, a “mobile disaster legal assistance” app
- Due Processor, an “interactive tool” for sentencing calculations and determining indigence in Massachusetts
- ReEntry App, a tool to help drug offenders reenter society and reduce recidivism
- Legal Apptitude, a “triage tool to evaluate a user’s ability to use self-help tools to represent him/herself in court in a legal dispute”
- Divorce Decoded, a guide for Massachusetts divorce
Teams then presented their projects to a panel of judges, who probed with questions about each project’s purpose, intended users and development process before announcing the winners (with PaperHealth taking first place and disastr taking second). The creativity of all the projects was awe-inspiring. If this much good could result in just 32 hours, just think how much good could be accomplished with more time and resources.
5. Building the door. This hackathon was not merely an exercise. The winning hacker, a local Massachusetts attorney, plans to release his PaperHealth app for free via Apple’s App Store, and at least one team has open-sourced their project via GitHub to encourage further development and collaboration.
The notion of open data to fuel legal hackers and advance technology was stressed as well in the ABA Annual Meeting program “Cracking the Code: Everything You Wanted to Know about Coding, Open Data and More But Were Afraid to Ask.” Dan Lear, panelist, blogger and Avvo Director of Industry Relations, explained that hacking is not all about malicious objectives like breaking into computer systems — and it isn’t about cranking things out in six-minute increments: “This is a higher level of understanding of how legal systems work and how they function.”
Panelist Jason Tashea, Juvenile Justice Policy Director for Advocates for Children, displayed a slide with this quote from Milton Berle: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” That’s precisely what the legal hacking community aims to do, using unconventional, creative methods to advance the profession.
Heidi S. Alexander is a Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and in implementing new law office technologies. A lawyer, Heidi co-hosts the Legal Toolkit podcast and writes for the MassLOMAP blog and the ABA’s Law Technology Today. Follow her on Twitter @heidialexander.