Hackers are coming after the legal profession. Run! Hide! Or join them?

The term ‘hacker’ is being used in a growing numbers of circles, and not in reference to some sort of scene from a movie about a coder (or group of coders) accessing data without authorization. This new connotation of hacker involves someone who pushes the boundaries of what is and is not possible in a clever or playful way. Taken broadly, many lawyers are hackers. They revel in cleverly navigating to a successful victory, and, especially in front of the Supreme Court, they probe the boundaries of what is and is not law. But community-defined parameters have constrained the boundaries of legal practice to a very distinct space, which has remained (mostly) untested until recently. In case you haven’t noticed, the giants in the legal technology world are racing to make their interfaces more user friendly. But as this article noted, the user interface is not the only problem; there is a fundamental issue with the search function and the way some of the data is presented. It doesn’t stop there. Big law firms have also been looking for ways to alter basic tenets of their structure, like fees, personnel, pay, and leadership. To date, these changes are small and have very little effect on the traditional confines of practice.

Today, however, hackers are breaking free from the framework that have limited lawyerly innovation. The legal profession is being ‘hacked.’ By integrating law into a technological structure, instead of integrating a technological structure into law, companies are redefining the boundaries of legal practice. This is vital in the post-recession legal market, where clients demand leaner and more cost-effective legal service with the same standard of quality.

Take, for example, a Y Combinator-backed startup called Clerky, which was featured in TechCunch when it launched last march. Clerky’s customers can easily file all the legal paperwork needed to get a startup off the ground. The ‘hack’ here is in how easy–and inexpensive–the founders Chris Field and Darby Wong have made the process. Users only need to enter the email address of the people required to sign the paperwork, as well as some basic information about the company. Clerky takes care of the rest by emailing the people involved and allowing them to electronically sign and date the documents. For about $400, a user can complete the incorporation process in Delaware, and, for $300 more, the standard post-incorporation documents are included as well (e.g., Action of Incorporator, Bylaws, Initial Board Consent, Restricted Stock Purchase Agreement, Notice of Stock Issuance, pre-filled 83(b) Election and Filing Instructions, and Confidential Information and Invention Assignment Agreement).

Another standout hack is best described as the ‘Wikipedia of law.’ The startup, Casetext, allows users to access legal documents and help with the annotation process, essentially, crowdsourcing legal research and analysis in an attempt to take on Lexis and Westlaw on cost–and maybe even on quality. This could be a gold mine if the legal community uses it as a tool to advance legal knowledge; but it might be a disaster if no one uses it, or worse: it resembles the haphazard, wild-west-style collaboration process for which Wikipedia has been criticized. Either way, this idea is functionally a ‘hack’ and is helping redefine the relationship between technology and the law.

Traditional legal fees and the billable hour are not going to be safe (to the extent that they still are) for much longer, especially as innovators build on the accomplishments of startups like SimpleLegal. There, founders Nathan Wenzel and Patrik Outericky are working to make the legal billing process more transparent by giving users a platform for analyzing a firm’s bill in search of errors and overbilling. The ‘hack’ is that the data collected allows SimpleLegal to anonymously aggregate bills across customers in order to more effectively standardize the process.

So the hackers have started to arrive. What will you do? Run? Hide? Or join them? Whatever you choose, let us know in the comments or on Twitter @VandyJETLaw!

–Zac Parsons

PS – Check out a few of these honorable mentions: Judicata (featured in TechCrunch and on CNNMoney), Ravel Law (discussed here and here ), Rocket Lawyer (featured in TechCrunch and on VentureBeat).

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2 Responses to Hacking the Legal Profession

  1. Zachary Loney says:

    As a followup, Here is a link to Professor J.B. Ruhl’s blog on the “Law Practice in 2050″ course he is teaching this semester.

    Insights on the “New Normal” from Law Firm Managing Partners and Corporate Counsel

  2. Zachary Loney says:

    Great post. Hopefully you are enrolled in E-Discovery or Law Practice in 2050. Vanderbilt seems to be doing its best to prepare us to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape.

    Coming from a software background, I am excited to see the development of these solutions. They were a long time coming and, at least in the short term, it looks like our wave of graduates will be tasked with figuring out how they fit into the practice of law.

    Established firms are beginning to take notice and it should only be a matter of time before they bring the old guard around. Even if they don’t adopt the new tools and processes wholesale, they can foster a culture that would allow eager tech-savvy lawyers to pilot the programs and prove their worth.