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Hack the Law to Reinvent the Wheel?

Hack the Law to Reinvent the WheelMy last post on ‘Lawyers and coding‘ was written as the Global Legal Hackathon was underway. We now have the results.

As I watched proceedings via Twitter, with specific reference to the London event, I was of the view that I was seeing solutions to ‘problems’ that possibly didn’t really exist and the wheel often being reinvented. Also blockchain was in vogue for no real reason other than perhaps to feed the current hype surrounding it.

A healthy debate then took place over on LinkedIn when Richard Tromans announced the London winners:-

The winners of the #GLH2018 >>> Pinsent Masons team led by Orlando Conetta.
>>> Big congrats to the team which created a Blockchain platform for partner voting on internally developed project ideas. Excellent work also by the five other teams.

Stephen Allen then enquired:-

Are you able to explain why Blockchain was the correct platform?

Richard didn’t appear to know the answer as he didn’t respond.

However, one of the Judges, Joanna Goodman, commented:-

Yes, in this specific case, it was, even though it might not be for every firm.  Of course it’s not the only approach to the law firm innovation dilemma…

Arlene McDaid joined in:-

Interested to learn why a voting system among a finite and defined group of trusted, identified parties benefits from blockchain (a way to reach consensus among mutually distrusting parties) – a centralised solution could provide the anonymity and security (blind signature schemes, for example) for considerably less cost than a blockchain solution.

Graeme Bodys, CEO of nooQ, joined in the debate too:-

Blockchain does seem overkill to me for this scenario. We provide innovation platform for idea voting, commenting and debate. We also provide option for anonymous voting too. We find legal partners esp drawn to our visual interface as being a time strapped and conscious industry we just show personalised decisions required for each individual.

Joanna Goodman came in again:-

A voting system is interesting for the partnership model because the blockchain element helps to accelerate decision-making and preserves independence – i.e. it gets around organisational politics.

I threw in a cheeky comment:-

Arlene McDaid It could be said that law firm partners are often “mutually distrusting parties” 😉 However, even where that is the case  I agree that using blockchain is still over egging the ‘problem’. I am at a loss to see why a large partnership has all their partners voting on innovation ideas. Surely a recipie to destroy any real innovation. Is that how you do it at Hogan Lovells Stephen Allen, FRSA?

Stephen replied:-

We use this great thing called email…..

But for innovation we like to go rogue.

Interestingly, on Tuesday past, The American Lawyer published an article entitled “The Death of the Law Firm Partnership Vote?” In that article it is suggested that with an eye on efficiency, law firms are ditching old methods for a more corporate form of governance. It is pointed out:-

A group of professionals focused on innovation in law firms were sitting around a table at a recent conference in London when one wryly remarked, “Partnership votes? Who does those anymore?”

It was an apt statement to be made in London, where law firms are typically more committed than their U.S. counterparts to running their operations like their corporate clients. And it was equally appropriate that the comment came from a group focused on innovation in law firms, something much more easily accomplished when only a small group of yeas are needed.

Again this echoes my point about the relevancy of the ‘problem’ the winning team sought to solve.

Alex G Smith entered the fray:-

I’m surprised none of the ideas/collaboration platforms got a mention before putting ideas on a blockchain like Spigit, Wazoku, Ideas Drop or Crowdicity used by a decent slice of corporate world, with clarity, auditable, built-in stages and mentors  … usually the first thing a product manager checks is whether the wheel already exists before accidentally reinventing it. Several firms have used such platforms. I’m sure immutable ideas are better than non-immutable ones.

look at the end results here – Teams China smashing it out the park using real tech https://globallegalhackathon.com/round-one-winners/ – mostly it seems by avoiding blockchain bingo and focusing on hard tasks like understanding legislation and knowledge graphs.

Things then got a little heated between Stephen and Joanna but all was resolved with agreement that they meet to discuss over coffee.

Joanna also said:-

I will write about why blockchain, and why we felt that application of blockchain worked in that context.

I look forward to seeing that when in print as it will no doubt add much to this debate.

Joanna did make the very valid point that as judges they were constrained with the entries before them and the competition criteria.

That criteria was:-

  • The goal is to apply innovative ideas and emerging technologies to progress the business of law or facilitate access to justice for the public.
  • Teams of 3 to 6 (maximum 10) will come up with a prototype or proposal at the end of the hackathon to present in front of a panel of judges.
  • We expect ideas using technologies like AI, Machine Learning, Chatbots, Blockchain, or the Internet of Things.

They had to pick a winner and the blockchain partner voting solution was the best of the pick. Fair enough. But also fair enough for spectators to question the validity (not of the judges decision) of the use of blockchain if it was just being used for the sake of it.

Joanna also made the valid point that the participants were giving up their time, energy and resources all weekend to try and develop something new. Hats off to them.

I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of participating in such an event myself but I am unsure if we need to have such an emphasis on AI and blockchain rather than simply technology. These events do somewhat feed the AI/blockchain hype I have highlighted before.

Joanna, however, believes:-

that routinely criticising people for trying to use emerging technology is unimaginative and demotivating. These people aren’t just playing AI/blockchain ‘bingo’ they are curious, and interested to explore what’s new.

I accept that participants are curious and interested to explore what’s new. But were they forced into playing AI/blockchain ‘bingo’ by the criteria set by the event itself and is that a good or a bad thing?

I know Orlando Conetta who led the winning team. I have seen him at a Legal Hackers event at Glasgow University. We sometimes bump into one another in the café below the Inksterplex in central Glasgow. He does not appear to have entered the fray so far but I would be interested to hear his views. Perhaps he and I will chat over a coffee sometime soon in Glasgow whilst Joanna and Stephen are doing the same in London. We can perhaps then expand upon the debate further on here.

Thomas Pauls, Client Experience Consultant at LexisNexis, commented:-

The winning team mentioned blockchain being a solution to a problem they had yet to identify during the pitching session on Friday.

I’m not sure they did with the solution presented.

We found the process really enjoyable and defiantly worthwhile, but it did seem to be more of a PowerPoint off.

I personally was expecting teams to be showcasing products that they had made in the allotted time.

Maybe that was my lack of understanding and reading the judging rubric I can defiantly see what Team P and M won so no complaints from me.

So rather confusing now – was the winning solution a blockchain one or not?

I was rather surprised that the competition was a “PowerPoint off”. I too had assumed that, with coders on the teams, a prototype would have been produced and demonstrated at the event. Is that not what a hackathon is all about?

Wikipedia suggests it is:-

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.

The goal of a hackathon is to create usable software. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created.

If the goal is to create usable software that is surely not PowerPoint. Was it a case of too many lawyers and not enough coders on the teams?

There is plenty of fit for purpose technology out there that can be used out of the box by lawyers without them needing to build their own.

I am also of the view that lawyers should avoid ‘a Clearspire‘ and not necessarily build their own.

However, that does not mean that we should not have hackathons to explore and find solutions to problems where no existing legal technology exists.

But do we need to clarify the purpose and criteria for such hackathons to make them better and reduce criticism of them?

Does AI/blockchain need to be the be all and end all of these events?

Should the goal actually be to create usable software rather than a PowerPoint presentation?

Should judges consider the relevancy of the actual ‘problem’ the team is seeking to solve and give scores according to such relevancy?

It only takes a quick Google search to see if your idea has already been implemented before. Should such Google disclosure be a mark down criteria in the judging process in future hackathons to avoid wheel reinventions?

What do you think?

Reactions on Social Media

In addition to the comments in the comments section below there have been reactions to this post on Twitter and LinkedIn. To keep these together with the post itself I have copied the tweets and comments here:-

NB Frank Jennings was one of the four judges at the London Legal Hackathon

NB Richard Moorhead has also left a comment in the comments section of the blog post below.

And on LinkedIn:-

Joanna Goodman:

This is worrying in a way, it is almost judging the event by proxy. You were in London and you could have attended the judging, but instead you are choosing to judge the event, it’s premises, and what it should be vicariously online. Personally, I don’t think this reflects very well on you, but that’s my personal view.

Stephen Allen:

So, let me be 100% clear.

I have simply asked ‘why blockchain’? I am not questioning the judges decision. I am not saying it’s the wrong platform. I am curious why it was chosen.

I am curious for two reasons:

1. I will be asked why was blockchain was used and could it be something that would work for us?
2. I have judged a couple of hackathon events and the decisions as to why an option was chosen are more interesting than the end solution.

So, I await the article in this state of curiousity.

Brian Inkster:

Joanna Goodman

I am sorry you feel that way.

Whilst I was in London I was there for other purposes and I am afraid I couldn’t attend the judging.

In the digital world we live in it is usual to view events from afar online and take views on them. People do that all the time particularly on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have done so for years with posts on www.thetimeblawg.com.

My blog post simply took a debate that had already begun on Twitter and LinkedIn and built upon it.

I highlighted valid points made by you in the debate to date and looked forward to your further comments. I raised questions that the exploration of can only seek to enrich future legal hackathons.

I am heartened that the organisers of the Global Legal Hackathon have referred to my blog post, on Twitter, as being a “Wonderful critique”.

This is all I set out in my blog posts to do: create some critical thought about issues concerning the past, present and future practice of law and maybe, like the participants of the hackathons seek to do, bring about meaningful change.

I am not criticising the event, the judges or the decision. I am simply expressing my views and hoping that others will engage and benefit from them.

Brian Inkster:

Thanks Stephen Allen.

I agree that there can be no suggestion that the judges decision is being questioned.

I, like you and several others, asked the “why blockchain?” question as soon as we saw it.

It is a very reasonable question to ask. So I too await the article that perhaps will answer it with the same state of curiosity.

Thomas Paul:

Totally agree, as a participant in the event, that the best team won as per the judges rubric. I certainly don’t think this is being questioned.

As my quote states we had a great time and found the event worthwhile and enjoyable.

The question I had at the time and it seems others do too, was why blockchain. This was one of the questions I wanted to raise on the day but was unable to do so with the 5 minute Q&A time limit.

Brian Inkster:

Thanks Thomas Pauls. I think that adds another question to my list: Should Legal Hackathons have longer than a 5 minute Q&A time limit?


Nir Golan:

Thanks for sharing Tom Braegelmann. What a great post by Brian Inkster. A few weeks ago, we had a long discussion on LinkedIn about the hype around hackathons and their real “effectiveness” in solving real problems:


It is astonishing that the criteria for the solutions that were presented at the hackathon in London was that they needed to be based on emerging technologies (AI, blockchain, bots etc.. ). Again, more focus on the tech used than solving a real problem. So disappointing. So much good can come out of these hackathons. Who cares what tech is used/if tech is used so long as we find a solution to an aching problem. That is the goal at end of the day, no? Isn’t that the purpose of hacking? Innovation?

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  1. Excellent post Brian. Joanna is right that criticism is demotivating, but so is BS. Are Hackathons just fluffers for proper innovation? Are they even that? I can see they might motivate and stimulate interest but I think there are lots of problems with them. LWOW model much better, for instance. And less boysy.

  2. I’ve adde a variant of this comment at the follow on post, but I wanted it here too:

    I’m late to this, for which I apologise, but as one of the two main organisers (with Rob Millard, as Orlando took more of a back seat as soon as he decided to lead a team) I should have seen this was going on. This is an important debate, but language is very important too. What you’ve called the criteria here were actually 3 bullet points from my introductory slide from the start of the London Hackathon titled “What is the Goal?”. The word criteria is not mentioned and wasn’t used when I was presenting that slide. Our website for the event very clearly points to the rules and criteria. When a member of our hacker audience asked how we will be judged in that introduction, I referred everyone to the Judging Rubric and read some of the key points from it.

    Can you please correct this post where you incorrectly refer to “the criteria in London”, and your conclusion, as the need for emerging technologies weren’t part of criteria, perhaps with an explanation of why the confusion was created.

    Words are important. No rules were bent.

    We all had a great time and Pinsent Masons were worthy winners.

    1. Thanks David

      A “goal” is defined as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result”.

      To suggest that including as a “goal” that “We expect ideas using technologies like AI, Machine Learning, Chatbots, Blockchain, or the Internet of Things” cannot be seen as part of the criteria for the event is disingenuous to say the least.

      Given that the official global rules do not mention types of technology at all, to produce a slide that specifically states what type of technology is expected as part of the goals of the event is clearly a steer to limit the technology to a certain type and depart from the clearly stated aims of the global organisers.

      How competitors will be judged is clearly very different from “goals” that have been set. The judging rubric contains no guidance on technology to be used.

      In the absence of what technology to use being specified anywhere it was clearly a mistake for you to include a slide that effectively did limit the choice of technology.

      There is therefore nothing for me to correct in my post. Indeed if anything your comments just strengthen my viewpoint.

      Words are indeed important and therefore perhaps next year you will change your slide to make it clear that any technology can be applied by competitors to solve the problem at hand.

      I am sure you all did have a great time and no one has disputed that on the day Pinsent Masons were the best team. Whether they adhered to the global rules is still questionable.

      1. Hi Brian,
        You weren’t there, and I wish you had been. You can be as nitpicking on the words as you want, because they are important. You were not there to hear how they were delivered and the resulting Q&A.

        My commentary on what we expected wasn’t taken as some sort of directive or guidance by the 6 teams of hackers. Everybody knows those emerging technologies were likely to be used, just like everybody knows that mobile apps and web interfaces would probably be part of the solution too. They all knew the rules, they all had access to the Judging Rubric, and they all knew that any technology approach was valid inside the rules and guidelines (that they had all signed off on by accepting terms in the Cadence app). That’s why presenting some bullets off a slide as the London criteria is false, whatever dictionary definitions you come up with. Words are important, along with the way they are conveyed. I truly wish you had been there to hear them. And I invite you to be a mentor next year (assuming my co-hosts don’t mind).

        So I still challenge you to change the wording on both of these posts, because we did not alter the London criteria. Suggesting we bent the rules is an insult, as is this comment in the other post:

        “I understand the London event was organised in a bit of a rush at the eleventh hour and this may go someway towards explaining the lack of attention to the detail in the rules.”

        You should ask any single one of the attendees if they thought it felt like it had been organised badly “at the eleventh hour” in the way you are inferring.

        Lastly, the debate about blockchain is perfectly valid, and a great topic to be discussing. I have no problem with that at all.


        No rules were bent. It leaves me wondering why you don’t want to see that?


        1. David

          There is no fake or false news here other than what your slides may have created.

          Words are important along with the way they are conveyed. It is therefore important to have slides that are accurate.

          My other post about bending rules has a question mark at the end of the title and always has done. I am asking the question as to whether rules were bent and providing the evidence I have to hand thereon. People can draw their own conclusions based on that and your comments. There is no reason for me to change the wording. You might not think your slide was significant in changing the London criteria but others might think it was. Indeed the global organisers have apologised if your slides led to confusion. Perhaps you should likewise apologise rather than being so adamant about the intent thereof.

          It could be argued that it is not me who should be amending anything but you who should be agreeing to amend your slide for next year’s event.

          Emerging technologies may have been likely to be used but it was very important not to highlight that as an expectation. To do so was wrong and I am at a loss as to why you can’t see that.

          You needn’t keep challenging me to change the content of my posts because I will not be doing so. There is a great danger to re-writing history rather than allowing posts to stand as they were but supplemented by comments and views thereon.

          I never wrote that the event was organised “badly” and it is disappointing that you are misquoting me. I had been told that the London event was pulled together at short notice and I simply pondered as to whether this was a reason why the rules had not been studied as carefully as they might otherwise have been.

          It is interesting how you state “no rules were bent” and “#fakenews” but do not, other than the criteria point, challenge in any way the other points in my other post regarding potential rule bending. I think you need to challenge those in a more constructive manner to convince my readers that “no rules were bent” and that my posts convey “#fakenews”. I don’t think a ‘Trump approach’ will wash with readers of this blog.

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