A Tale Of Two Hackathons: Open And Focused Approaches

What makes a good hackathon? After being a judge for two very different hackathons, here are some thoughts from Artificial Lawyer’s Editor.

Two Approaches

There are many varieties of hackathon (not to mention events such as design sprints and design jams – which tend to have market testing as part of the schedule). But this is how two recently took place. These two types can be described as Open and Focused.

Open Hackathon – this is the more traditional type of hackathon, or at least that has taken place most often in the legal world recently. This particular one was held in Japan, (see story), and organised by LegalTech Japan and LexisNexis (winning team and organisers pictured above).

Participants – it was open to all. There were no restrictions. In attendance were a mix of people from law firms, corporates, tech vendors and others. There were different ages, levels of experience with tech, and a wide range of professional interests. What brought everyone together was the chance to form a team and build something that addressed a need in the legal field. The organisers had also made sure that they’d invited a number of developers who could code so that each team would be able to make something more than just a theoretical presentation.

Tech Stack – this was also very open. Developers used whatever software they liked that was free, and no restrictions or demands were put on the teams to use any particular approach or software. The main focus instead was on the design of the solution. The tech part was more there as a means to help demonstrate a little of what had been designed, rather than the core of the challenge.

Problem Targets – in keeping with the open nature of this hackathon, there was no particular problem, or type of challenge, to focus on. The goal was to do something that would address a legal sector need that could, at least in part, be addressed by designing and partially building a solution. It could be an access to justice need, a need seen inside law firms/corporates, or it could be a consumer product. Whatever the teams wanted to address was good.

Timeline – this was a two-day event, with judging and a prize ceremony at the end of the second day.

Results – the problems addressed and the solutions created were diverse in many ways. The winning team was an online platform for wills, which as well as being very well presented to the judges, appeared to address an overpoweringly important need, i.e. that in Japan many people don’t have wills because of cultural barriers to them. It was a B2C solution that could help literally millions of people. So, it just seemed to be so much more compelling than the others and hence it won.

The other teams generally were more focused on solutions for lawyers. They ranged from quite narrow objectives to very ambitious. For example, on the more focused side there was a team that worked on a system to help sort out documents involved in evidence for litigation. At the other end of the spectrum one team came up with a new modular document creation system, but while impressive could not really be brought to fruition in such a short time.

Because of the open nature of the event, ideas tended to be quite significant, which meant that actually building more than a few steps into the solution was hard to achieve. This meant that the judges were primarily assessing on proposed solutions, rather than finished products. And this was fine, as the idea was not to create a go to market product in two days, but to get teams of people to collaborate, to think, to design, to plan and present ideas that addressed real world needs. And it achieved that excellently.

Conclusion: the open approach is great for teams that are not experts in legal technology or design, but want to get a taste of it and not be hemmed in by a strict process. This results in a wide range of solutions, often very ambitious ones. Overall, this is more an experience based on thinking and designing, rather than creating a working solution one could take back to your law firm. That said, some of the ideas could be taken to a firm’s innovation team and made real if the firm wanted to.

Michael Grupp, CEO, Bryter, talking to the teams in the New York Hackathon, as part of Future Lawyer Week USA, organised by Cosmonauts.

Focused Hackathon – this was the type of event that is often supported by a specific vendor in order to allow people to see what can be built with that technology. In this case, the software company was no code legal automation system, Bryter. The event was in New York, and was part of the Future Lawyer Week USA, created by Cosmonauts.

Participants – the teams here were from law firms primarily, and often were people involved directly in tech in some way, whether part of the main IT or innovation teams of a firm, or perhaps connected to the e-discovery group. There were also some lawyers there. In short, these were people who were already very experienced at using software. They were not necessarily coders, but they knew a lot about working with tech and both its pros and cons. The teams also tended to group around particular law firms, although one or two teams were a mix of different firms.

Tech Stack – as noted, there was a specific focus on Bryter, a no code platform that allows people to create workflows relatively easily without the need to know any computer language. The interface is designed to be used by anyone who wants to build out a workflow to address a specific need inside the business.

Problem Targets – again, this was more focused. The goal was to pick a challenge that was clearly visible inside their law firm and where there was a compelling need for a solution. This was to be all about practical and immediate solutions, rather than very ambitious projects.

Timeline – this was across one day. Most of the morning was spent showing how the system worked, with some practice time to let the teams get to grips with things. Then the teams set to work and finished off in the early evening. It was surprising how quickly they were able to come up with working solutions to problems. Some teams completed quite advanced products in about five hours. Moreover, all of these were working models.

Results – the results were impressive and this was in part because the teams were made up largely of people working at the sharp end of legal innovation in what were mostly large US commercial law firms. I.e. they jumped straight into this with clear ideas about what they wanted to do.

Having a no code system allowed them to make something that was real and actually worked. The presentations largely showed working models, although one or two were perhaps still in need of more work.

The winning solution was from Winston & Strawn and was focused on collecting information about company directors as part of SEC regulatory filing needs around an IPO. The idea had been proposed by a young lawyer on the team who said this was literally the task he had to do the next day. The judges declared this one the winner because it was a very clear need – as the team explained that it was a time-consuming task that could actually stop an IPO taking place if it took too long. It was also a great fit for a workflow tool. The presentation was crystal clear and the approach to the design was practical and workable. It was noted that the end product, based on Bryter, could be taken back to the firm that evening and put to work, which was impressive.

Conclusion: this was clearly very different to the Open approach. It allowed for the creation of more than theoretical products, and that was very interesting to see. The practical, ‘you can take this home and use it now’, aspect was also very positive.

Having to use just one vendor’s software was of course limiting, but this limitation did result in something tangible. The fact that the teams were experienced in the world of legal tech already also no doubt helped a lot to create practical outcomes. Collecting director information for an IPO isn’t going to change the world, but it would make a difference to efficiency inside a law firm.

Overall Conclusion

So, there you go. Two approaches. Two end results. Artificial Lawyer’s view is that both are equally great ways of running a hackathon, but clearly are suited to two different audiences. The Focused approach seems to best suit professional teams that want something very tangible to show their firms. The Open approach is best for events where the organisers want to bring together a wide audience and want to enthuse people with the idea that they can build things.

Both were very positive experiences for all involved. As a judge at both events it was fantastic to see such creativity. And creativity is something we don’t often hear enough about in the legal sector. There is something quite special about walking into a room full of people with nothing but some sketched out ideas, and then, some hours later, there is a room full of products at different stages of development.

It reminds us of how creative people can be when given the time, space and encouragement. And that’s got to be a good thing.