Thursday, July 23, 2015

Legal Hacktivist Bootcamp: A Hackathon Course Debrief

HacktivistWhat is a hackathon?  A hackathon is an event, typically lasting a couple of days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.  It seems a strange companion to lawyers and law schools, however, law school and legal practitioner involvement in hackathons is on the rise.  Hackathons have become a way to look for new and innovative methods of legal services delivery with the possible side effect of creating disruptions to the legal industry.  The ABA, practitioners and law schools have held weekend hackathons focused on blending law and technology to alleviate legal access problems.  As a group we acknowledge that there is a role for technology to play in the resolution of this thorny problem.  One of the accidental outcomes of a good hackathon is a deeper understanding of the law and the legal process issues in question.  With this thought in mind, VLS decided to offer a course based around the principles of a legal hackathon.

In early June, Vermont Law School challenged students enrolled in Hacktivist Boot Camp to think about the practice of law differently – to think of law as a combination of lawyer, legal knowledge engineer, designer, developer, and entrepreneur would.  Students in the course prototyped a legal mobile application and pitched the completed prototype to a panel of judges and a broader audience.  The students were thrilled with the outcomes, the judges were impressed with what the students developed in eleven days and, as the faculty member teaching the course, I was excited by the performance of students on legal learning outcomes.

Hacktivist2Originally the course was designed to combine the efforts of computer science undergraduates and law students, offering graduate level credit for the undergraduates and J.D. credit for the law students.  The course was intended to have a completed mobile application as one of the outcomes.  While we had several inquiries from computer science undergraduates, a combination of logistical challenges and financial aid difficulties made attending impossible for those interested. 

With a lack of computer science undergraduates, the programming aspects of the course were dropped and the course refocused on designing and building a functional prototype with legal content and the accompanying scoping and project management challenges.  Additionally, the goal of teaching students to split tasks between lawyers and technologists and overcome their inherent communication barriers was no longer possible.  The new course focus created an emphasis on teaching law students to create rapid prototypes – in seven days with little technical support.  By happy accident, the circumstance became an opportunity to pilot this concept with law students and gauge their reactions to the heightened technical aspects of the course.  The results of the pilot were surprising.  The law students rose to the challenge with enthusiasm and the advanced functionality of their prototypes surprised them.  The process of learning the prototyping software through the implementation of legal logic enhanced legal learning outcomes.

The two week summer course met Monday through Thursday morning for three hours.  The eight days were split into three main sections.  In the first section students learned how to interview stakeholders, develop a project scope and define a project charter.  On campus program directors whose programs would benefit from a legal access mobile app visited the class and described their app ideas.  The students heard from potential stakeholders about a Veteran’s benefits app, an Immigrant’s benefits app, an app to educate consumer about the impacts of their solar energy purchase and an app to help farmers generate a lease agreement.  Students also worked together to identify areas where technology could have a positive impact on legal access, presented their app ideas to the class and located an outside stakeholder to support their ideas.  Two student ideas, Text a Lawyer and Pocket Lawyer:  DUI Edition, were shared with the class.  From legal, design and development perspectives, the class analyzed the scope of the projects and selected three apps that had reasonable scope and were of interest to the students involved.  They selected Text a Lawyer, Pocket LawyerDUI Edition and the Agricultural Lease app. 

Hacktivist3The second section of the course began on the third day.  Students were asked to install and learn the rapid prototyping tool Axure.  At the same time, the teams were responsible for researching the law related to their application, meeting with their stakeholders, testing designs with their stakeholders and creating logic flowcharts of the law for use in their app.  On the eighth day their initial prototype was due and they demonstrated it for their stakeholders.  With ongoing feedback from their stakeholders, students spent the next two days learning about iterative development, controlling scope creep and managing a project with stakeholder involvement.  At the end of day nine, they had a finalized prototype.

The final section of the course involved creating a presentation that explained how their legal application functioned, how the app would be used and other details that were important to their application.  During this period, students crafted flowcharts and slides to support their presentation.  They also created a judging sheet specific to their application in order to gain specific feedback of interest to them.  Judging took place at the end of the day on day eleven.  The judges were faculty members, lawyers and leaders in the legaltech industry.  Judges were presented with a standard judging sheet and a sheet specific to each app.  The panel of judges was active and student found themselves defending their application and their legal, design and engineering decisions during presentations. 

Students completed the course with a working prototype of their application that they could use in their portfolio.  In follow-up conversations, students consistently expressed surprise at the depth of legal knowledge necessary to engineer the prototype.  They learned every possibility in the area of law that their app addressed and the importance of managing the scope and development cycle of a project.  While students reported that learning Axure was a challenge, they claimed creating the prototype raised their legal reasoning skills to a new level and deepened their thinking about the law in their area. 

The success of a new course should be measured in the accomplishment of student outcomes.  This course, as offered without computer science students, had the following student goals:

  • Learn to work directly with legal stakeholders
  • Learn to produce legal design documents
  • Identify areas where technology would have a positive impact on legal access
  • Learn legal concepts with sufficient depth to create comprehensive flowcharts of a specific area of law
  • Gain the capacity to translating legal, legislative or policy processes into software
  • Analyze legal logic and identify the required components of laws and policies
  • Learn to positively collaborate with stakeholders and other interested parties
  • Learn to manage product development in a team environment
  • Produce a portfolio ready application or prototype
  • Gain experience pitching a product

Even with the time limitations, the goals for the pilot course were met.  Students were empowered in the use of technology and the application of the law.  They created apps for the public good.  VLS plans to offer this course again next summer and as a full-term course during the school year with the added challenge of learning the technology necessary to build an application.

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