How Hackathons Are Helping To Decode The Justice Gap

By Jack Karp | June 9, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

These programmers are part of a global movement of "legal hackers" aiming to shrink the justice gap. Left to Right: Zachary L. Wotawa, Michael A. Sato, Joshua K. Veal-Briscoe and Lucas K. Peterson. (Photo: Corey Allen)

Michael Sato never considered himself a hacker. But as a public defender in Missouri, he was frustrated with what he saw as the unfairness of the cash bail system and had an idea about how to fix it.

"There's poor people in jail not because they're a flight risk, not because they're a danger to the community, but because they're poor," he told Law360 of his clients.

So when a friend invited him to his first hackathon, he thought it might be a chance to try that idea out. There, Sato met several programmers who were excited about helping, and together they worked almost nonstop for the next 46 hours to build Freecog.

Freecog — which Sato named by combining "free" with "recog," the jailhouse term for a recognizance bond — is designed to use smartphones to replace cash bail. The app facilitates defendants' check-ins by sending them a code they have to record themselves repeating, according to Sato, who hopes to pilot the app in September.

Facial recognition and voice-to-text authentication verify a defendant's identity, and the phone's GPS lets the app know exactly where the defendant is. If a defendant violates the terms of their release, the app can alert the judge, their attorney or the prosecutor.

"The concept of using an app, a free app, free to defendants instead of charging people money to get out of jail, I think that idea is really powerful and it's the right time for it," Sato said, adding that "my cellphone is ... a hell of a lot smarter than your average bail bondsman."

Sato and the Freecog team meet every Monday night to continue developing the app, which they plan to pilot in September. (Photo: Corey Allen)

Sato isn't the only attorney turning to a computer lab instead of a courtroom to bridge the justice gap. What has become known as "legal hacking" has been gaining momentum since law professor Jonathan Askin organized what is credited as the first legal hackathon in 2012 at Brooklyn Law School.

Now, seven years later, legal hacking is so popular that the 2019 Global Legal Hackathon drew over 6,000 participants in 46 cities across 24 countries, and it and events like it have spawned technologies that do everything from translating legalese in government notices and consumer contracts to helping people released from prison find legal and other services to determining users' eligibility for legal aid.

"We've got to start thinking about lawyers as the creators of a new society in the wake of revolutionary new developments," Askin said.

Booting Up a Movement

A hackathon brings coders and developers together, usually over a weekend, to compete or collaborate to build technological solutions to various problems. Askin had been bringing students to hackathons like those, but "we felt like wallflowers at the revolution," he said, because they were lawyers and law students, not coders.

"So I resolved that we were going to train this new generation of lawyers to think like the hackers and startups that are revolutionizing the 21st century in the digital age," he said.

Askin focused his "legal" hackathon on law-related issues and included lawyers from the start, though he acknowledged that, since that first hackathon was attended almost exclusively by attorneys, "it was more like a talkathon." 

But getting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involved and adding bona fide technologists, the legal hackathons took off. Some of Askin's students started New York Legal Hackers to build a community around "hacking" the law. Another student founded a chapter in Washington, D.C. There are now over 130 Legal Hackers chapters on six continents, according to the group's website. 

"The legal hacking movement has been really successful in highlighting and championing access to justice as a real problem that has attainable solutions," said Lauren Mack, one of the original New York hackers who is now a Legal Hackers board member and an attorney at Masur Griffitts LLP.

"Using technology to help those who may not otherwise have the ability to hire a lawyer or navigate the legal system is cheaper, faster, and can help more people than finding funding to have humans provide the same services," she said.

A Global Competition for Justice

Some of those solutions may come from events like the Global Legal Hackathon.

GLH, which bills itself as the world's largest legal hackathon, hosts competitions in cities around the world over a single weekend in which participants work on ideas related to access to justice and business of law, according to Pierson Grider, an executive at Integra Inc. and one of the event's organizers. It was at the St. Louis node of this year's GLH that Sato formed his team to work on Freecog.

GLH participants include law students, developers and even attorneys from big law firms, some of which, Grider says, have sent their own teams to compete.

One of this year's participants was Mary Ho. While Sato was entering his first hackathon in St. Louis, Ho was on the other side of the world entering hers.

An attorney in Hong Kong looking for pro bono opportunities for herself and her colleagues, she was frustrated with having to coordinate those opportunities via email and phone, remembering one time when a colleague was enthusiastic about helping a local nonprofit, but "with all the emails back and forth, by the time we informed the nonprofit that we wanted to work on the case, it had already been assigned."

Mary Ho, who presented her web application Access Our Community at the GLH finals, hopes the app will make it easier for lawyers to do pro bono work.

So Ho took her problem to the Hong Kong node of GLH, where she teamed up with lawyers and technology professionals. That team created Access Our Community, a web application that matches lawyers looking for pro bono work with the nonprofits looking for lawyers.

The app aims to streamline that matching process by aggregating many pro bono opportunities onto one platform where attorneys can filter them by variables like practice area and time commitment, see if they're still available and apply for them right away.

Access Our Community advanced to the GLH finals in New York, and though it didn't take home the prize, Ho and her team are now raising startup funds and consulting with potential users in Hong Kong and Australia.

"We believe AOC can ... free up the lawyers' time to do more of the actual pro bono work," Ho says. "My team wants to deploy AOC to increase the number of lawyers involved in pro bono and ultimately increase access to justice."

But others using technology to increase access to justice insist there are better ways to do that than hackathons.

"What generally happens at hackathons is everyone gets together, they get a great idea, the great idea wins a prize, and then no one picks it up to actually build the app," said Georgetown University Law Center professor Tanina Rostain.

Rostain, who teaches students to develop technologies that improve access to the legal system, says legal hackers often fail to build apps that are sustainable and avoid duplication, among other oversights. At one point, there were three criminal record expungement apps in Maryland at the same time, she said.

"It doesn't help the world if each organization is building its own little app that does the same thing," she said.

Jason Tashea learned that the hard way. He created one of those expungement apps,

A legal affairs writer, adjunct law professor and co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of Legal Hackers, Tashea hoped his app would walk people through the expungement process by asking them simple questions about their criminal record.

But while the app got a lot of attention at first, Tashea said, "I recommend that no one replicate it."

That's because users often gave up partway through the process, and the app led to only 124 expungement filings in Maryland as of September 2016, the latest year Tashea has data for.

"Asking a bunch of questions about a pretty idiosyncratic process is a quick way to lose your customers," he said.

Tackling Local Problems

Johan Widjaja is also hoping to hack his way through the justice gap. A member of Philadelphia Legal Hackers and assistant director of information governance at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, he had participated in hackathons before. So when his firm hosted the Philadelphia node of this year's GLH, he saw a chance to use his skills to have an immediate local impact.

"Most of our team members live in the city and are aware of some of its biggest problems," one of which is that it ranks fourth in the nation in evictions, he said. "These underserved tenants often do not have a straightforward way to assess their eviction case and connect them to help."

Hackers in Hamburg, Germany, and 45 other cities, worked for two days straight to develop technology to improve access to justice at this year's Global Legal Hackathon in February.

So Widjaja and a team he formed devised Eviction Safe Philly, an online tool that plans to ask tenants a series of questions and use their answers to identify possible issues with their evictions and refer them to legal aid providers.

And though the app didn't make it to the GLH finals, "Eviction Safe Philly is far from dead," Widjaja said.

The team has already had the app's questions vetted by the Legal Clinic for the Disabled and is planning more vetting with lawyers involved in landlord-tenant cases before reaching out to legal aid providers and the city to introduce it to the tenants it's intended to help.

"It doesn't matter if they win or lose ... they want to continue to work on this solution outside of the hackathon," Grider said of GLH's hackers. "That's one of the things that I find pretty amazing."

While Widjaja and his team are focused on solving a local issue, the solutions they and others devise have the potential to be applied globally.

This year's GLH, for instance, featured teams from both Australia and New York developing apps to streamline the process for potential plaintiffs to get information about class actions they might qualify for.

While every jurisdiction has its own "pain points," there are also a lot of similarities, Grider said.

"It doesn't matter if it's a developed country or a developing country, you see a lot of the same issues happening," he said.

'The Dot-Matrix Printer Stage of Legal Hacking'

Rather than hackathons, Tashea and Rostain say a better way to improve access to justice through technology is to reach out to communities and organizations to find out what tools they actually need and then work with them to understand who the apps are meant to serve.

That's the approach Rostain's students took when building a legal risk detector.

The app helps social workers serving the homebound elderly make a "legal diagnosis" to figure out if the person they're assisting has a legal problem. The social worker can then send that client and the data the app collects to the appropriate lawyer or organization.

The app has been effective because it "marries technology with a person, a trusted intermediary who has a relationship with the patient or the client who's being helped and therefore enhances the trust of the whole process," Rostain said.

Hackathons do have an important role to play in bringing people together and exciting them about solving these problems, Tashea said, but ultimately "a weekend isn't long enough to deal with systemic issues of poverty and racism."

Askin acknowledged that legal hackers' efforts to promote access to justice have come in "fits and starts." 

He attributes these early stumbles to new technology that has sometimes been "terrible" and difficulties developing apps after the hackathons that birthed them end.

But, he said, "we're still in the dot-matrix printer stage of legal hacking."

"We're getting to the place now where the tools are user-friendly enough that even a lawyer could do it," he said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Mary Ho's current employer. The error has been corrected.

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