Legal Hackers: Group Works To Combine Law, Technology

A relatively new group in the legal space hopes to show that there's room for technology to help solve common legal problems. The organization has already inspired a few apps of its own.

Sometimes, the way to win over younger members in your field is to let them build an organization of their own.

That’s the story behind Legal Hackers, a group encouraging a tech-focused approach to tackling tough issues in the legislative and legal space. The group, born from the debate around the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in 2011, has nearly 1,800 members worldwide. The issue that the founders—law students in New York City—saw with SOPA was one of a basic disconnect between the tech and legal spheres.

“After scores of internet users opposed the passage of SOPA and [its Senate counterpart] PIPA through vocal and technological protest, Congress decided to table the bills for later consideration,” Legal Hackers states on its website. “But the fact that the bills got so close to becoming law troubled a few Brooklyn Law School students. How could Congress come up with a law so devoid of stakeholder input and so divorced from a meaningful resolution to this common legal problem?”

The solution? The group wants to build technology to help solve legal issues. For some members, this means pushing lawyers away from desktop-based paradigms—where everything’s done through emailed Word documents—and toward a mobile-first approach.

It’s that inspiration that’s leading lawyer William Palin to help launch a Boston-based branch of Legal Hackers. According to The Boston Globe, Palin has worked on launching two apps of his own—PaperDeal and PaperHealth—to help enable lawyers to complete common legal tasks through their smartphones. PaperDeal came about as part of his work with Legal Hackers.

“My computer was dying,” Palin recalls. “So I thought, ‘What if I could do my work through my phone?’”

Others are seeing the potential here, too. One venture-funded app, Shake, has raised more than $4 million. The app allows people to send and sign legal documents easily.

An Approach to Replicate?

Legal Hackers—which is currently set up as an LLC that strives “to run … like a low- or non-profit organization”—has grown quickly over the years, with members setting up chapters in places as far afield as London and Stockholm. The local chapters organize meetings and hackathons to help build technical knowledge and show lawyers what might be possible.

The group presented at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in August, leading a session called “Cracking the Code: Everything You Wanted to Know About Coding, Open Data & More But Were Afraid to Ask.”

And while the approach is relatively fresh to the legal space, it’s not without precedent. The organization is similar to Hacks/Hackers, which encourages journalists to work with programmers on projects. One of the group’s cofounders, former Associated Press reporter Burt Herman, went on to help launch a popular curation platform, Storify, which was acquired by Livefyre last year.

Think your association could find room for a couple of hackathons? Offer your take in the comments.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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