Every Attorney Should Participate in a Hackathon — Here’s Why

This post originally appeared on ‘A Lawyer’s Digital Mark.’

I spent eleven hours on Saturday as a volunteer attorney at the inaugural Music City Legal Hackathon. The central goal of the hackathon, sponsored by the Music City Legal Hackers and Vanderbilt University Law School, was to provide access to justice by solving technology problems submitted by local nonprofit legal organizations from across Tennessee.

Prior to attending this event, I had never participated in a hackathon (legal or otherwise) and had no clue what to expect going into it. The legal hackathon turned out to be an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and now cannot wait to participate again!

First of all, what is a hackathon?

A group has formed and begins discussing the action points for solving the challenge presented by the stakeholder.

A hackathon is an event where coders, educators, government officials, community leaders, and sponsors come together for one day with a shared purpose of achieving a goal through coding, or ‘hacking.’ The goals involve solving some kind of problem or challenge submitted by a ‘stakeholder,’ usually a nonprofit or other organization. ‘Coders’ is a broad term that can include computer programmers, data analysis/scientists, architects, UX/UI designers, graphic designers, project managers, consultants, or other professionals from related computer science or engineering fields. Hackathon events are often large enough to allow for multiple groups to form organically and tackle more than just one problem.

When it comes to legal hackathons, you’ll throw some attorneys (and even judges!) into the mix and often find a theme, such as ‘improving access to justice,’ that serves as the underlying goal of the event. At the most recent Music City Legal Hackathon, stakeholders were local legal nonprofits. You can read all of the proposals and requests for challenges that were submitted over at the stakeholders site.

A legal hackathon is often one singular event that is coordinated by a local chapter of the Legal Hackers organization. Legal Hackers is a global nonprofit organization that empowers and mobilizes teams of “lawyers, policymakers, technologists, and academics” to solve legal technology issues through creative coding solutions. A legal hackathon is often just one initiative that is part of a series of local Legal Hacker organization events, education workshops, and networking opportunities hosted throughout the year.

The Music City Legal Hackathon schedule went something like this:

  • 6:30am-7:30am — Setup
  • 7:30am-8:00am — Registration & Breakfast
  • 8:00am-9:00am — Welcome & Opening Talks, Presentations of Challenges from Stakeholders
  • 9:00am — 4:00pm — Hacking!
  • 4:00pm — Recap/Presentations from teams
  • 5:00pm — Closing Reception

What does an attorney do at a hackathon event?

The role of an attorney is to provide legal counsel! I know it sounds obvious, but it’s the truth. So much is happening during a hackathon that decisions are made and acted upon quickly. Attorneys are supposed to be in the trenches. You should be actively listening to the solutions proposed and brainstorming that occurs between the stakeholders and the coders.

It’s easy to be intimidated! Don’t let that stop you. I still remember the first legal clinic I volunteered at when I was a law student and the attorney I shadowed (Hey, Will!). I vividly remember the anxiety of not having a clue as to what was going on. But, I learned quickly and future legal clinics became easier.

Hackathons are just like legal clinics. Attorneys provide advice as much as they can based on their experience. If you don’t know the answer, then someone helps find it. I learned during my first hackathon that everyone is always Googling to find answers. I witnessed a variety of instances in which highly trained professionals were faced with difficult problems and were forced into finding answers on the fly. Examples included: a coder trying to figure out what APIs were available to get data into a stakeholder’s system; a data scientist trying to track down the best possible open source map data to build upon; or an attorney making sure the license for the code snippets being used wouldn’t cause issues down the road.

Attorneys of all skill levels and practice areas are needed at hackathon events. You shouldn’t have ‘just technology’ attorneys at the event. The projects will usually be wide enough in scope that the solutions need the input of attorneys from all areas of the profession. For instance, one of the projects on Saturday focused on centralizing information contained in different state driver record databases and, long term, have the databases communicate with each other. Luckily, an attorney that had experience in criminal law practice attended the event and provided valuable insight into and first-hand knowledge of the steps involved to obtain an accurate and updated driver license status. They were able to explain the difficulties of finding specific answers as to why a license may have been suspended.

Why should every attorney participate in at least one hackathon?

There is an immense professional development gain from attending a hackathon event. A hackathon event can help an attorney better understand where the future of the profession is heading by allowing them to take an active role in developing technologies that improve access to justice. Rather than being told ‘this is the new technology, just use it,’ attorneys can play a key part in shaping the new technology.

Additionally, attorneys that attend a hackathon can learn to think like a programmer. There are a number of problems that can be solved by having a foundational understanding of basic coding skills, such as how software is created or what makes a device function properly. It’s through this process of learning a new way of thinking that attorneys can build upon existing skill sets and creatively problem solve to overcome the next generation of legal issues facing the profession.

Lastly, attorneys can learn new tricks! I learned about Google Fusion Tables because I simply asked. In the process of having two programmers I worked with on a project explain to me part of the solution they were building, a few terms were dropped that I hadn’t heard before. One of those was Google Fusion Tables and the importance of data visualization. I found that the environment at a hackathon is highly educational. Everyone is learning through real-life problem solving and readily sharing insights and information along the way to building incredible solutions.

Get Involved!

Find a Legal Hackers group or event in your area. There is likely a local chapter already established and you can find them here. If not, start one! You can also find other hackathon themed events taking place in your local area. Most events will be connected to a local coding school or university offering programming courses.

I’ve also uploaded to Flickr all of the photos and videos I took during the event and made them available under a CC0 license.

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