A growing network of young U.S. lawyers is trying to drag law firms across Canada and the United States into the mobile age by building apps that make mundane legal tasks easier, with help from a Vancouver legal tech startup.
Dozens of Legal Hackers, as the group calls itself, meet for "hackathons" in four U.S. cities every few weeks – usually after putting in a long day of legal work themselves. They shed their suits for jeans, boardroom cookies and coffee for beer and pizza, and plush offices for grotty couches where they write code through the night. Among the projects they've worked on: software to make trademark searches easier, digital immigration forms and software to help opposing counsel mark-up deal documents without stepping on each others' toes.
Their goal is "positive technological disruption," according to Jack Newton, chief executive officer and founder of Clio, a Vancouver company that provides law firms with cloud-based management software. The company has joined Hewlett-Packard Co. to sponsor some of the group's "hackathons" in the United States.
Hackathons are not unique to the legal profession. Doctors, scientists, designers and educators have used the informal gatherings to create new software in their fields, and they're a way of life at many tech giants. Facebook's "like" button and "chat" feature both came out of hackathons.
But the legal industry is still very "risk averse," says Abe Geiger, founder and CEO of Shake Inc., a New York company that develops software to create, sign and send contracts through mobile devices.
Canadian lawyers are facing "increasing pressure from their clients to be flexible," says Peter Carayiannis, president of Conduit Law PC in Toronto. His firm makes heavy use of smartphones for everything from opening new client files to conducting conflict searches.
Legal Hackers began in 2011 with a handful of Brooklyn law students who noticed that many lawyers were technophobes, more comfortable with old-fashioned pens and paper than with mobile devices and apps that could save them time. In 2012, with the support of Brooklyn Law School's Incubator and Policy Clinic and several other sponsors, Legal Hackers started organizing hackathons.
The group now has 1,759 unpaid members around the world – centred on four U.S. chapters in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and North Carolina, as well as a new chapter in Stockholm. The group may soon open a new chapter in Halifax.
"This is just our passion project, we all have full-time jobs," explains Lauren Mack, the New York Legal Hackers director of outreach and an intellectual property attorney at Morrison-Tenenbaum PLLC in New York.
The tech industry is also starting to take notice. Legal Hackers are of "high value" to the software industry because as lawyers, its members have expertise about the legal issues around handling and storing large amounts of data, says Remko de Knikker, a developer evangelist at HP Autonomy.
Hewlett-Packard kicked in $2,500 (U.S.) toward the last New York hackathon, which was held Sept. 19-21. There, Legal Hackers competed to write code that would make deal negotiations go faster. First prize went to Ryan Trinkle, 27 and Ali Abrar, 28. Their app, "Obsidian Redline," lets all of the lawyers negotiating a deal review the same document simultaneously without passing Microsoft Word documents back and forth to figure out who has the latest version.
Mr. Trinkle and Mr. Abrar, who both attended Harvard Law School and have computer science backgrounds, wanted to make a "simple and powerful improvement" in negotiating documents, and came up with the idea during "happy-hour" just before the hackathon got going, Mr. Trinkle says.
"Law is one of the unhappiest professions," notes Clio's Mr. Newton. New technology can change that, he says, by helping lawyers finish work faster and get "to their kid's soccer game" on time.
TOOLS FOR LAWYERS
Here are five ways law firms are using technology.
1. Cloud-based management Clio, a cloud-based management application, allows lawyers to use their mobile device to track time and billing, access their calendars and schedules and create to-do lists with their clients.
2. Online contract negotiation Shake Inc., a New York-based legal startup, allows lawyers to securely create, send and even sign contracts on their mobile phones. "Our goal is to use technology to simplify the legal process," says Abe Geiger, founder and CEO of Shake Inc.
3. Fixed-price options Clients can choose from one of Boston startup Legal Hero LLC's fixed-price projects and view the bill before they begin work with a lawyer. It's an easy, three-step process: Pick a price, pick a lawyer and start the project.
4. Online litigation tools
Allegory Law Inc. makes litigation software for lawyers. Instead of sifting through stacks of paper on their desks, lawyers can now access their case files through the Web app or their mobile devices.
5. Free video-conference consultations LawZam LLC co-founder Claudio Dunkelman calls its free service" speed dating for the legal world" because clients can video chat with lawyers until they find the one they want. Clients type in their legal question and enter their zip code. So far, this service is only available in the United States.