Every now and then, I imagine that the framers of the Constitution were America’s first legal hackers. Recognizing that the existing model for governance—monarchy—did not match modern conditions, the framers re-engineered government and created the first constitutional republic. They even embraced “agile development,” iterating on the governing documents after the “minimum viable product” (the Articles of Confederation) lacked key features, and baked in the concept of versions (amendments) from the very start.
Today, a growing community of lawyers, technologists, and activists are engaged in a similar effort to rethink the practice of law and government. Under the loose brands of “civic hacking” or “legal hacking,” this group is quietly working to revolutionize how the public can gain access to justice and improve the profession of law.
I did not expect to be part of this movement. Until 2013, my career as a practicing government attorney involved the traditional tools of the trade: Microsoft Office, a Lexis/Westlaw account, and halfhearted attempts to use Dropbox and Evernote. But in 2013, a community activist enlightened me about how technology could help make my job easier, and that set me off on a personal journey to learn to code.
In less than two years (and still while maintaining my day job as a practicing lawyer) I have built tools to: compute effective dates; keep track of changing Supreme Court opinions; calculate sentencing ranges in Massachusetts; automate document creation for the D.C. Legal Aid Society; and link programmatically to judicial opinions by citation, as well as building a simple, web-friendly alternative to PowerPoint slides. I even helped make sure that all D.C. courts’ opinions were available on CourtListener, an effort of the Free Law Project to make judicial opinions freely available and searchable. These tools have allowed me (or others in some instances) to deliver better services to my clients, with less opportunity for human error, and allowed me to spend more time on thornier legal issues or with my family.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t build these things all alone or from scratch. These projects involved collaborations with other legal hackers, and built upon libraries and tools built by hundreds of others. I have been the beneficiary of decades of labor by individuals who have contributed millions of lines of code and dedicated it to the public domain or offered the code under permissive licenses so that others could build on their work.
For example, @SCOTUS_servo, which keeps track of Supreme Court opinions, was built using at least five different major open-source tools (including git and many node libraries). I built the original code in an evening. If I was starting from scratch, it would have taken years. Similarly, HTMLDecks (htmldecks.com) is built on top of a presentation framework called RevealJS and uses a syntax called Markdown, both of which are freely available for people to use in whatever way they so choose.
Here is an important lesson and opportunity for the legal profession: we do not need to go it alone or start from scratch. Of course, some or even most law firms and institutions will build tools that are closed and hidden from each other. But that does not mean all will do so.
Organizations and individuals are already working together to build common platforms and tools for lawyers and civic innovators. For example, the Sunlight Foundation, the New York Times, GovTrack.us, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation collaborated to build theunitedstates.io, which provides common tools to consume and publish congressional and federal spending data. Similarly, the Free Law Founders (of which I am a member), are working to build open-source tools for city and state legislative bodies.
This type of collaboration offers a new, mutually beneficial model for legal professionals. Rather than considering partnerships as exclusively within an organization, firms can partner with each other to reduce the cost associated with delivering high-quality legal services.
But there’s another, potentially even more important, lesson here. Rather than hiring expensive consultants to build systems or to adapt an existing commercial-off-the-shelf system every time there’s a new technology need, firms and organizations would do well to embrace their inner legal hackers and to bring in outer hackers. The traditional model for obtaining technology to improve legal practice has involved huge costs. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Of course, not every lawyer should learn to code; that is unrealistic and likely unwise. Instead, firms and organizations should partner with (and in some cases, hire) developers and technologists who are willing to take risks, who are willing to contribute to others’ projects, and who are willing to understand the legal profession’s nuances and idiosyncrasies.
My experience is that those developers and technologists are ready to make a major contribution to the legal profession. More than 200 years ago, our nation’s first legal hackers helped create a system of laws that ensured a republic and that continues to be the envy of the world. Today’s legal hackers stand ready to continue in that tradition, and to help improve our system of laws to help form a more perfect union. All we need to do is to embrace them, and to start hacking.
About the Author
Although definitions of “civic hacking” are somewhat amorphous, one succinct definition captures the gist: “Civic Innovation is a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.” Alex Howard, A definition for civic innovation, govfresh (March 16, 2012)
Michael Grass, The Ultimate in Open Government: Unlocking the Laws, Government Executive (July 8, 2014)
Although not every lawyer should learn to code, I recommend trying it out. By way of analogy, I love listening to professional pianists play Chopin. Although I am sure I’d love Chopin regardless of whether I learned to play his Nocturnes, I am enriched by the fact that I practiced his music and that I know the technical aspects of his music. So it is with code. You can know how something works, but your appreciation is deepened by trying it yourself. Even if you are not a professional developer (and I am not), you can see design patterns and appreciate elegant solutions at a deeper level. Also, personally, I find the practice of coding to be enjoyable and fun.
(Image Credit: ShutterStock)