Lawyers, time to get hacking


It has been terrific kicking-off and speaking at a number of legal hackathons over the past few months. These events are always great opportunities for a range of different stakeholders to come together over pizza, beer and limited sleep for a friendly competition focused on reengineering the practice of law.

Legal hackathons have evolved significantly over the past decade. In the early days they were very focused on developing specific technologies to solve specific legal problems. Today, however, they often address wide-ranging questions about business processes and digital transformation. Either way, the best part of legal hackathons is that they take lawyers out of their comfort zone and make abstract concepts come to life.

Lawyers, like most professionals, often find it hard to focus on anything beyond the immediate assignments clogging their inbox. Yet, in my experience, the most innovative legal teams never stop challenging themselves. They always question what they do today and wonder how to be better tomorrow.

There is no doubt that the courage to embrace change is necessary for law firms and in-house departments to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Disruption is everywhere, whether it’s simple low-cost legal process outsourcing or much more complex legal work being handled through machine learning and artificial intelligence. As a recent McKinsey report concluded:

Leadership and human resources will also need to adapt: almost 20 percent of companies say their executive team lacks sufficient knowledge to lead adoption of automation and artificial intelligence. Almost one in three firms are concerned that lacking the skills they need for automation adoption will hurt their future financial performance (McKinsey Global Institute, Skill Shift Automation and the Future of the Global Workforce 4 2018).

This is why legal hackathons are so useful.

These events are ultimately about making real world improvements to the client experience and practice of law. They typically involve professionals with varying levels of seniority, such as project managers, subject-matter experts, software programmers and data experts, who meet to engage in competitive, collaborative computer programming around a specific set of challenges. The teams that devise the most significant and creative solutions are rewarded at the end of the event.

I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing a wide array of incredibly exciting projects come out of legal hackathons over the past few years. What really sticks out, however, are the teams that use these events to create solutions that expand access to justice. For example, a number of groups created accessibility tools that make it easier for those with disabilities to access online information about legal rights and benefits.

But liberating lawyers to think creatively and be unafraid of making mistakes involves major cultural change. Too many lawyers continue to cling to traditional methods such as email and textbooks. Operating this way doesn’t just slow the legal process, it also makes these traditionalists less relevant and less effective at resolving concerns. All of this in an era when clients – whether in-house lawyers or in-house business leaders – have unrivalled choice.

Practitioners should be excited by the opportunity to revolutionise the practice of law. After all, technological disruption has long been underway in the legal community. Nearly 20 years ago videoconferencing and electronic signatures began speeding-up collaboration between lawyers and clients. More recently, AI-based automation of document discovery and the approval of standard form contracts has freed-up lawyers to make more creative and strategic contributions to their organisations, while others are leveraging sophisticated data analytics tools to review large caches of procurement contracts and financial statements. Eventually, artificial intelligence could make it possible to tease out legal precedents from 100-page judgments or predict the outcome of a case that is before the courts.

Practitioners should be on a constant quest for new ideas that refresh their organisations. While some law firms make a single person responsible for innovation, or even create a standalone innovation function, the best approach is to engage people at all levels.

Lawyers can no longer afford to simply be legal specialists; they must also be able to talk the language of technology and business. These concerns apply with even greater force to in-house lawyers, many of whom are constantly challenged by their employers to justify their economic value.

Innovation does not necessarily require profound technological breakthroughs. More often than not it’s about an openness to continuous improvement. That’s why attending hackathons benefits all lawyers, no matter their technical expertise.

Anyone interested in the automation of legal services and the power of digital transformation should look out for these events. They are both fun and valuable. Best of all, they provide an opportunity to help write the future of our industry and be an agitator – not just a bystander – in the face of great change.

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