The hacker culture emerged at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1950s and 1960s where gifted technology enthusiasts worked day and night to build computer programs and live by a unwritten “hacker ethic” that view computer technologies as a tool for creative exploration and the public good. The culture has since spread through free and open source software communities, and eventually changed the world forever. For example, the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley played an important role in the development of the personal computer which has since revolutionized the way humans interact. The free software movement grounded themselves in the idea of self-perpetuating software license, the GNU General Public License (GPL). This open source movement has built software that powers computers all over the world, mostly notably through the work of Linus Torvalds and the Linux operating system. Open culture communities have since sprung up in other fields, including Wikipedia and the idea of free knowledge, and during the past seven years Legal Hackers has introduced the idea to the legal industry.
“Legal Hackers is a grassroots movement that seeks to foster creative problem-solving at the intersection of law and technology by creating an open culture for law. When I say open culture, I mean one that breaks down barriers between existing silos - lawyers, policy professionals, technologists, designers, artists - really anyone who is interested in the intersection between law and technology,” says Jameson Dempsey who is a member of their Board of Directors and currently a residential fellow at CodeX - the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics. He was also one of the founding members of the movement that began in Brooklyn in 2012 by several students at the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic and their professor Jonathan Askin. In his role, Dempsey helps new chapters form, thrive and connect to one another, while advancing the mission of Legal Hackers.
In popular culture, the hacker term is usually related to crime: pale teenagers breaking into your bank account or state-sponsored hackers stealing your data. Legal Hackers is no such thing: “Legal Hackers does not support, condone or engage in illegal computer hacking. We are not a black hat group or a white hat group. Instead, we embrace the open culture ethos of the original hackers,” Dempsey says.
He is supported by his fellow legal hacker from the London Chapter, Emily MacLoud: “To some, the term has a negative connotation, but for us, it is about trying to hack a job together and develop something new. There is this phrase; fail often and fail fast, which is what hacking has its core. We try to experiment and see what we can do,” she explains.
A worldwide movement
Legal Hackers have self-organised chapters and communities all over the world; from Enugu City in Nigeria to Minsk in Belarus and San Francisco in the US. It engages only volunteers and their events, whether they are workshops or legal hackathons, are in general free and open to the public. During the past years, those events have resulted in tools to help disaster victims and to improve web accessibility for people with disabilities. “Helping those who lack access to justice is a running priority through many legal chapters,” says Dempsey.
How can technology create better access to justice?
“I think it can help access to justice in many ways. It can make legal information available for people who wouldn't otherwise have access to it. It could lower the cost of legal services to make it more affordable. It could improve understanding of legal materials and concepts. It could make it less intimidating for individuals to interact with the legal system. Legal technology that is used by courts or government bodies could increase the efficiency of the judicial system itself, and legal technology analytical tools can make it easier for lawyers and those interacting with the legal system to do better research,” he answers.
According to an article by Forbes Contributor and Legal Hacker Valentin Pivovarov; “Approximately six billion people in today’s global population don’t have adequate access to justice. Every year, one billion people face a new justice problem. Of the most severe ones, a mere 18% are completely resolved. The statistic says that 80% of US citizens can’t afford lawyer services in civil matters because they are too expensive.” Ukrainian Pivovarov was one of the first legal tech entrepreneurs in the Post-Soviet countries with the product Bitlex and still describes himself as a legal tech-doer. For him, the community part of the hackers movement and just creating an eco-system around legal tech is essential.
“This is a huge part of my life. I think I should share my experiences and motivate young entrepreneurs and lawyers to see that there is another way of thinking, another way of doing things in the legal industry. That is my mission: creating content and raise the engagement of lawyers and legal tech startup,” he explains. “Ukraine is a great place to start something in legal tech because on the one hand we have problems with justice, it is a Post-Soviet country so we have problems with corruption. But on the other hand, we have a lot of really talented tech-people who would really like to change this country for the better - to be a part of the European Union.”
That said, Legal Hackers is not a commercial entity, charity, or a political movement. Instead, it is an open and neutral community for learning, building, and discussing the intersection of law and technology: “It is unrealistic to think that we can design a complete solution that will improve access to justice and solve a systemic problem in the space of a weekend at a hackathon. However, these events bring folks together. They give attendees, from a wide range of disciplines, the opportunity to engage with these problems, discuss them openly and challenge the status quo,” explains MacLoud.
Hacking the establishment
If one is to be a bit critical of a grassroots movements like the Legal Hackers, one could question whether this is just a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters with no real power in the established and more traditional-minded legal industry.
So what then makes Legal Hackers such a good solution?
“It creates a common identity among different stakeholders within legal innovation. It doesn't matter what background you have and that creates opportunities for cooperation and collaboration by breaking down silos within the ecosystem. Second, by embracing the open collaborative values of the hacker culture, Legal Hackers are able to facilitate rapid dissemination of legal innovation across the ecosystem. If you create an open source tool and share it with the rest of the world, anyone can reuse it, remix it, use it for their own purposes and across jurisdictions. It makes it easier for legal innovation to take hold and spread,” says Jameson Dempsey.
What would you say to those in practice right now who thinks this is a bit of a hippie movement?
“Folks said the same thing about free and open source software but now varieties of open source power everything from the servers we rely on for big data to the operating systems in our mobile phones. Take something like Wikipedia, there is a quote from their executive director “It went from ‘don't trust it if it is on Wikipedia’ to ‘don't trust it unless it is on Wikipedia’”. Khan Academy and similar MOOC platforms are training millions of people, and today many of the world's elite universities offer their courses for free online. If it can work for education, for knowledge and for software, certainly it can work for law. This is proving out because Legal Hackers, over the course of seven years, has grown from a meetup in New York City to the largest grassroots legal innovation community in the World,” Dempsey answers.
How do you bridge to the established industry?
“It might seem like a young movement, but that is not always the case. The organiser of Vienna Legal Hackers is a gentleman named Stefan Eder. He was the former regional managing partner of the Central- and Eastern European region for a major law firm. Today he is a senior partner and has a background in IT - he is a seasoned pro. The point is that Legal Hackers run the gamut, including high school students, university professors,LegalTech executives, and senior partners from larger law firms and Big Four consultancies. People within government, people outside government. So I think the mission and the ethos is something that everyone can embrace. In fact, we are seeing that as Legal Hackers chapters form in local areas, the established law firms, government bodies and large corporations will approach the chapters and say they want to get involved or support us, sponsor events or things like that. While at first we may have wondered what efforts we would need to bridge the gap, I think once we begin telling our stories, sharing our ethos and what we care about, that many of the existing players within the legal ecosystem have become allies” he explains.
He is supported by his colleague, Emily MacLoud: “We are engaging the next generation of leaders of the legal industry,” she says and the explains: “We are providing the space, making sure that there is always an opportunity for people to mingle and share ideas. It is the people that come along that will influence how far it goes. We just want to be able to provide a platform where people are able to do some cool stuff.” she concludes with a smile.