Lawyers and code - who'da thunk? Yet Global Legal Hackathon hailed as success

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy March 4, 2018
The Global Legal Hackathon was a resounding success. Here's what we discovered in London.

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The weekend before last I tipped up to a bitterly cold London for the UK's end of the Global Legal Hackathon. It was a surprisingly good event. I say surprisingly because, for the first time in many a year, I met with hackers, lawyers, marketers and other assorted waifs and strays who 'get' that code needs to do more than fun stuff like controlling a beer keg with a smartphone. They knew off the bat that judges would be looking for something that has commercial potential. And that made for some great ideas, some of which came together better than others.

It's worth noting that a week after the event and the Legal AI blog is reporting a continued interest in the event per the illustration top right.

The changing face of law

I spent a good amount of time listening to Sophia Adams Bhatti, director of legal and regulatory policy at The Law Society talking about the shifting sands of lawyer expectations as they move through from training to the world of work. It seems that the days of the 'one stop shop' where a trainee joins one firm and becomes a lifer in the long-term expectation of partner status is coming to an end.

Bhatti says that for her generation and the next (Gen Y and on) there is a growing realization and expectation that lawyers will use their legal training as a jump point to many other roles which includes coding but could equally embrace many other professions. That's interesting because when I was training as an accountant, it was always said that an accounting qualification was a pathway to many other roles. It seems the legal profession is morphing that way. Hence it should be no surprise that the hackathon attracted teams from 40 cities around the world with attendances topping 5,000 people. Back to London.

Tech as fashion

As might be expected, there was an awful lot of talk about fashionable tech - you know the drill - machine learning, bots, blockchain. From that perspective alone, it was good to see teams attempting to get something useful out of one technology which I would argue has yet to prove itself much beyond some image and some text recognition and another which is hobbled by performance issues. Personally, I would have liked to see more effort put into enriching the smart contract arena but that will be for another day.

The problem comes in helping firms understand the nature of a smart contract. A team I mentored were strong on the technology for a conveyancing use case but struggled to distill the problem they were solving into something that made obvious sense. In part, you had to 'get' blockchain in order to get past the 'What's wrong with tracked changes in a Word doc?' kind of question when thinking about immutability and the nature of hashing. Developers will get there but it's not as easy as it sounds.

The winning demo

The winners, which coincidentally were the same as the event location providers found a way past blockchain technicalities by talking about using blockchain tech to provide anonymous voting on proposed innovation projects. While the solution was aimed at large firms, I could see the immediate appeal to firms and not just legal but anywhere the partnership model exists and of any size. Why?

Anyone with experience of working in partnerships large or small knows that power centers always arise in much the same way they do in any corporate environment. That doesn't matter on a routine, day to day basis but it absolutely does matter in the context of innovations that hold the potential to disrupt the status quo. The notion of anonymous voting is not new but the addition of the blockchain makes the vote immutable. In a post on LinkedIn, winning team leader Orlando Conetta wrote:

There are other vendor solutions in the space of polling and collaboration, but from our analysis they are not ubiquitous and innovation polling is far from a solved problem. We think the application of blockchain is relevant and unique amongst existing players in the market, and would offer anonymity to voters and integrity in the auditing of results.

A management team would be able to decide on a large financial investment with a greater degree of insight into the buy-in at partner level for the solution. The anonymity would ensure that vested interests were not able to influence a particular outcome, or that a third party or system administrator had been able to corrupt the ledger.

Since this was a hackathon aimed at lawyers I was waiting for someone to come along and re-run the rules, looking for error. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened.

An armchair quarterback went on a pedantic nitpicking exercise. Which is a shame because the way some critics come across, you'd think the teams were coerced into using specific technologies. They'd have had to be monumentally stupid as would the otherwise excellent judging panel to have made that schoolboy error. And to be clear, I saw no evidence at all of what the (not in attendance) critic had to say.

Hackathons and fun

The fact is that it is in the nature of hackathons that teams tend to play with the latest and greatest to see what they can make. It's called experimentation. It doesn't mean those same technologies end up in a finished solution. Indeed, the purpose of a hackathon isn't to come up with the finished product but to float an idea and see if it resonates. In this case, the answer was a clear 'yes.'

From my POV the most compelling part of the winning demo wasn't the technology but about the way the team had elegantly assembled a set of technologies - some existing and in use together with some new, in a way that hid complexity from the user and rendered through a nice looking UI.

Another way to look at these events is to consider them as a performance where the story is the most important part of the presentation. This, to my mind, was where most teams struggled. It is something of which I have personal experience having scripted hackathon presentations in the past, getting it spectacularly wrong.

Overall, the London end of the Global Legal Hackathon was something of an eye-opener. I didn't have high expectations yet was thrilled to find teams who are keenly aware of both threats to their profession that can be met by technology, alongside those who see the intelligent use of learning algorithms holding the promise to democratize important areas of the law.

Expansive variety

Looking across the whole of the winning team entrants, it is encouraging to see a broad variety of topics being addressed. Here are some random examples:

Madrid, Spain - Panopticon is a blockchain based solution to provide certainty on employment and human rights compliance across cross-border supply chains. Our team has the ambition to support the efforts of multinationals to end abusive labor conditions. This solution gathers data on site in order to guarantee the efficient enforcement of contractual clauses through smart contracts. In particular, clauses embedded in supply agreements entered into between multinational companies and subcontractors based in jurisdictions without reliable enforcement mechanisms.

Cleveland OH, USA - Our mission is to provide a clear understanding of how to choose and verify appropriate use of INCOterms when buying or selling across international borders to more accurately capture costs and risks. INCOtelligent smart contracts help your business navigate INCOterms for international purchasing contracts. By using a set of guided questions, INCOtelligent smart contracts help you select the right INCOterm for your business

Johannesburg, South Africa - SoLaw is a social media-style platform which provides access to legal resources and facilitates interactions with legal professionals at an affordable price for end users, while reducing the cost of acquisition and case loads for lawyers.

Lagos, Nigeria - Project Lemonaid. Electronically facilitate access to criminal justice by increasing the turnaround time for delivery of pro-bono legal services through collating, analyzing, and collaborating on existing case data.

Budapest, Hungary - Discovery GDPR application - the idea is to create a mobile application, through which user can ask for the data/info stored about them at different data controllers, also through the app, user can request deletion of all data. The app receives and process data given about the user and create visual information about for example profiling info, etc.

My take

Anything that can be codified will be automated in some way and it is good to see teams recognizing that automation can serve the interests of those who may struggle to gain access to legal services. The legal profession gets this and is but the latest to feel the cold wind of change as clients demand more for less while new entrants are questioning the value of partnership structures. Hackathons of this kind open the door to innovation and should serve as a way of recognizing the broad swathe of potential that technology can bring. Even so, developers in this field will need to exercise care that they don't unwittingly re-invent problems.

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