Something is going on: the rise and rise of the hackathon and competitive pitch

The Canadian Bar Association Conference in Ottawa earlier this month began with a competitive pitch by five legal start-ups. It was described by The Financial Post as ‘big, brash and loud’. For the record, it was won by a document review system called Beagle. However, more important than the winner may be the process. The popularity of the format merits a bit of investigation.

The competitive pitch merges at a point into the hackathon where the competition element is key to the working through of a project in a limited time. There are countless examples around the world of the technique being applied to law. But, London-based Legal Geek are a good example and it has produced a rather good youtube video of its ‘Law for Good’ conference boasting of its approach: ‘no sleep. pizza. beer. coffee. coding.’ Ten teams competed to assist Hackney Law Centre: the winner was a triage idea from a team from Freshfields, a major City firm.

There are variations on the competitive pitch/hackathon process, many of which relate to the amount of time given to the process. An example from Australia comes from the Access to Justice through Technology Challenge at RMIT University in Melbourne. This sets up a thirteen week period to work on the project. Toronto’s Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone is partnering with Ontario’s Ministry of Justice by giving space for four months to six start ups successful in an initial bid process. After further competition, three winners get to stay for an extra four months: the top two get prize money.

There is a gutsy side to this phenomenon. Some of the video commemorations are just asking for ‘Chariots of Fire’ as the background music. In fact, it can only be copyright restrictions which have hindered its use so far. And you would not need to be rabid feminist to note the rather male quality to much of the palaver. But, under the razzamatazz there is clearly a serious purpose and one which appears to be evolving.  This is the ABA Journal’s account of the 2015 Georgetown University’s Iron Tech Lawyer Competition: ’the substance of Iron Tech Lawyer has evolved in a big way, too. Initially, students developed apps and then public-interest groups might possibly get interested in them; now, outside groups make requests ahead of time. One of the six teams, consisting of three to four students each, followed up on outreach from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and prepared an app to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, with some consultation by DOJ staffers. The app, ADA2GO, helps people with disabilities or others working on their behalf–as well as businesses and organizations subject to the act–understand their rights or responsibilities.And some of the apps now go well beyond legal-services triage and logic trees. The Alaskan Native Child Welfare Assistance app even helps prepare for custody hearings. Requested by the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, the app helps families or their representatives ensure that those children removed from their homes …’

Another long running example with an organised hinterland is HiiL’s Innovating Justice award. The process of evaluation stretches out from March to December. ‘We are currently at the stage of 36 semi-finalists: Our focus is on Africa and the MENA region. In addition, we accepted general legal tech applications from Ukraine that answer to our recently launched Ukranian Justice Needs Report. There is up to €160,000 available in acceleration funding which will be divided over the finalists (around €25,000 EUR per innovation).’

So, what do we make of this phenomenon? There seem to be a number of things to note. First, the energy and excitement behind these events and processes is palpable. Brainstorming and competition are old techniques being given new days and reborn in the crucible of new technology. Second, the evolution noted in the Georgetown process is surely important. Service providers are beginning to reach down to the innovators. Third, this evolution is probably necessary in the longer term to provide some context to what could otherwise be a scattergun approach. There will be  a lot of wasted time and effort but that is actually integral to the competitive format. And finally, we can see the power of technological innovation itself as one of the drivers of change. The techies are demanding to be used and are challenging funders to innovate. Of course, an old legal services veteran of the 1970s remembers the days when the excitement came from discovering that the law can – sometimes – uphold the rights of the poor against the powerful. But, hey, you have to change. And what is the harm if that becomes the result of the introduction of a more competitive, entrepreneurial focus on the process?

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