It’s Time for a Law Firm Hackathon

Yahoo! Hack Day In the world of law firm blogging there is Bruce MacEwen…and then there are the rest of us. Writing as Adam Smith Esq., Bruce has just completed an extraordinary series of posts entitled “Growth is Dead.” In his final installment, The S-Curve, Bruce says that if law firms wish to survive the current economic headwinds, it’s critical that they identify the next S-Curve and jump on it. The problem is that for all the hand-wringing we’ve seen since 2008 (usually accompanied by dire mutterings about the “New Normal”), there don’t appear to be many well-considered, internally coherent proposals for that new S-Curve.

For those of you coming to the conversation late, S-Curves illustrate, among other things, life cycles (of technology, for instance) and the diffusion of innovation. Clayton Christensen showed us in The Innovator’s Dilemma how upstarts can enter an industry with disruptive innovation that creates a new S-Curve and lets them eat the lunch of more established players in their vertical. The challenge for those more established players is to innovate sufficiently so that they don’t become footnotes in history.

If only innovation were that easy.

In reality, innovation can be extremely hard work. To begin with, organizations are too often rather hostile towards innovation. Further, individuals within those organizations sometimes lack the right mindset for change. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Why Innovation Fails.)

So how do you work around these problems in order to find the disruptive innovation that is right for your organization? As far as the legal industry is concerned, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned. We need answers fast. It’s time for a Law Firm Hackathon.

What’s a Hackathon?

Hackathon is a portmanteau of hack + marathon, and is used to describe a brief, intense period of hands-on collaboration to solve a specific problem. Invented in the world of software development, hackathons initially were used to develop usable code by pooling the efforts of many over the course of a short period (e.g., a day, a weekend, or a week). Since then, hackathons have been used to re-imagine everything from a better New York City government website to social justice in Africa to the world’s sanitation crisis to improved management practices and reinventing business itself.

Here are some key elements of a hackathon:

  • Issue an open invitation so that you involve people who might otherwise be trapped in organizational silos — this event has to be more than the same old folks talking about the same old things
  • Frame the problem clearly at the beginning of the hackathon
  • Be sure to provide for creature comforts — food, drink and work space

The critical thing is to move past brainstorming to creating a workable prototype within the time period of the hackathon. The result need not be a final product. However, it should be something tangible or concrete on which you can build.

How to do a Law Firm Hackathon

  • Read Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology (see the “hackathon-in-a-box” materials)
  • Recruit widely from across the firm, but ensure that the firm’s senior leadership participates fully
  • Follow the good advice from the Mix Management Hackathon:
    • Be radical — the hack should make a discernible difference in your firm
    • Be practical — the hack should be easy to implement
    • Be simple — if the hack is too complicated, it won’t gain traction
  • When the hackathon is over, don’t waste time before you implement the winning hacks. In the words of Frans Johansson, the key is to “start with the smallest executable step.”

Start planning your law firm hackathon now. Time is running out. As Bruce MacEwen says: “We have no idea yet what BigLaw will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.”


Here is some additional reading regarding hackathons:

[Photo Credit: Scott Beale]

2 thoughts on “It’s Time for a Law Firm Hackathon

  1. Mary,

    I agree that intra-firm hackathons are an effective way to solve client problems though I wonder if it is just another label for the collaboration that is already occurring in law firms big and small.

    Leaving that issue aside and not wanting to debate the differences between current collaboration methods and a intra-firm hackathon, I believe the real value of a hackathon is in the inter-firm (or, more likely, the inter-solo) hackathon to solve client problems.

    If the future of BigLaw (and the professional organizational structure for the delivery of legal services for that matter) is uncertain–and I certainly agree that it is–then perhaps the hackathon solution for solving client problems should be examined in light of Susskind’s theories of open law and virtual collaboration among non-professionally organized lawyers–that is, inter-solo hackathons which more accurately is defined as a hackathon than a intra-firm hackathon.

    Yours truly,

  2. As someone who has been to a few technical hackathons, I find my own legal industry adopting the term to be the rough equivalent of a ‘veggieducken.’ The idea is clear enough. But all the flavor is lost when no one is actually hammering out a prototype on a laptop.

    You’ll know the legal industry has solved the problem of the S-curve when clients are clamoring to pay higher fees because they want this new higher-value service or product we are selling. So long as I keep reading article after article about how general counsel are driving down our costs, then we are clearly selling the wrong thing.

    The structural challenge is that the same technologies we can use to create a product or service offering like that are available not only to our competitors, but also to our clients. And to this point, those technologies have been used to displace attorneys, not to amplify their value.

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