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Global legal hackathon is practical and relevant

Our man Richard Sykes interviews CTO Rachel Murphy at the Horizon CIO podcast Innovation Leadership Summit on the topic of hackathons and firebreak exercises 

As I checked in at Pinsent Masons’ offices I joked that I was there for the illegal hackathon. Quarter page advertisements in the previous days’ Financial Times had announced a Global Legal Hackathon that final February weekend – the London arm of the exercise to be held there.

In these columns I write for the Horizon CIO podcast I focus on the breadth of new business capabilities (such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain) that have been enabled by the development of contemporary computing power. These new capabilities are driving the transformation of business models, at times quite radically. The purpose of the 2018 Global Legal Hackathon is to explore, test, innovate the profession across the globe.

The exploitation of benefits of contemporary technologies in the law profession (lawtech!) is already a reality. Late last summer the FT (29/08/2017) reported research by Thompson Reuters identifying 579 lawtech patents filed in 2016, 436 in 2015, just 99 in 2014. 

The Global Legal Hackathon is thus a serious initiative, intended to be repeated in future years. The sponsors of the UK exercise were LexisNexis and JG Consulting: co-hosts Cambridge Strategy Group, Agile Elephant and Pinsent Masons: with additional support from The Law Society, The Society for Computers and Law, and DistruptiveLive – along with access to IBM and Microsoft computing power. The London hackathon was one of 40 such events being held in 20 countries worldwide (underwritten by IBM Watson Legal, Integra Ledger, the Global Legal Blockchain Consortium, Cadence, LawDroid, and ONE400) – the London winner (see below) entering into the global competition, with an overall winner to be announced at a banquet in New York on April 21st. 

So at relatively short notice six hackathon teams gathered at the law offices brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm. A quick head count indicated that the minority were experienced hackathon participants – for the majority this was a new experience. I was there as a judge. My fellow judges were Christina Blacklaws (Deputy VP of the Law Society) as our chair, Frank Jennings (the noted ‘Cloud Lawyer’), and Joanna Goodman (author and IT columnist in the Guardian and the Law Society Gazette).

The agendas of each of the six competing teams were diverse (as were their names).  A distributed ledger (/blockchain) to store legal contracts and to improve client visibility (LightningWarriors): a smart communications and aggregation tool to master the avalanche of legal communications and generate machine responses etc (smartcomms.ai): an app for SMEs able to conduct a full GDPR compliance audit (GDPR or Global Decentralised Process Renegade!): a platform for every legal firm’s breadth of business to give a single overview (Legalytics). 

As judges we were worked hard! Our task was to identify the top two teams and that we did. The runner up, Lippy, had identified a vital social agenda – how to support litigants-in-person through the process of managing their disputes. They focused on divorce as a demonstration case – and as government cut backs sharply reduce the support available to divorce litigants (often low-income women in particular) the potential for such an on-line capability is clearly significant. In their presentation to the judges the Lippy team introduced the virtual Polly, daughter of IBM’s AI Watson, who has the experience to interactively guide and advise the lonely litigant – especially if she/he will be in court without formal legal representation.

As judges we were impressed by the quality of work done by this hackathon team – our advice was that they should persevere and seek a (likely academic) collaborator to further develop the behavioural/AI aspects of Polly.

Our choice as winner (who now go forward into the international competition) was Team PM, whose objective was to ‘enable law firm partners to select investment stakes in innovation proposals through a blockchain-based tool’.  Team PM drew on the Innovation Team at Pinsent Masons with the objective of a secure service (‘Appella’) enabling partners in a large (international) law firm to vote on proposals to invest in innovations/new ventures. Their focus on a blockchain-based tool is to ensure privacy and security while preserving an unchallengeable record of the voting behind a particular decision.

Is this an example of ’the answer in blockchain – what was the question?’?  A focused dialogue with the Pinsent Masons’ team convinced us that in this case the blockchain capability is properly exploited – for a start a law firm is a closed shop so the trust context is high, and the amount of computing power required is constrained.

My core conclusion from the two day hackathon?  A powerful example of an effective means for the exploration of how a key aspect of our contemporary economy (in this case the damned lawyers!) can potentially be transformed by the new business capabilities I am writing about in these Horizon CIO podcast columns.           

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About Richard Sykes 7 Articles
I am a businessman with over forty years' experience that spans the chemical & IT industries, and the world of visual & performing arts. I have held senior executive roles in a major global multinational, and non-executive chairmanships of smaller ventures & not-for-profits. I have lived & managed businesses internationally.
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