By Chad Perlov, Content Manager for Privacy and Data Security, Technology Transactions at LexisNexis

How do you stimulate the kind of creative thinking that results in the next great business idea? Sometimes it takes a fun, high-energy event and some friendly competition to take nascent entrepreneurial ideas to the next level. That was the idea behind the inaugural Global Legal Hackathon in February, which was held in 20 countries and 40 cities across the world. Participants from law firms, corporate law departments, legal technology companies, law schools, government agencies and legal services providers came together to brainstorm, collaborate intensively and pitch ideas in an event designed to speed up the process of solving practical problems in the legal industry.

While teams composed of members from a single organization were allowed, an important emphasis of the competition was fostering diversity in skill sets and experience, and all teams were required to be willing to accept the addition of individual participants to their team on the first day of the event.

As a judge at the Denver site – at the company headquarters of Legal Talk Network – I got an up-close look at the sometimes frenetic and always inspiring activity and came away with a few insights into what makes events like this a success for everyone involved.

Organizers: Identify a meaningful goal that resonates with the target audience and present detailed criteria for success. Innovation must have a specific purpose, and to their credit the organizers of the Global Legal Hackathon were explicit about what they were looking for. Organizers asked participants to tackle one of two challenges: Develop a solution that either 1) enhances the business of law or a 2) fosters better governance, improved legal systems or access to justice (aka A2J). The public benefit of the A2J angle proved especially compelling among Denver participants, and just about every team ended up submitting proposals aimed at making legal services more readily accessible to the people who most need them. This is a difficult challenge that the legal industry has long struggled to solve, so it was encouraging to see it tackled head-on from a variety of angles.

One reason this event was so successful is that Hackathon organizers took the time to develop clear rules and guidelines, including a detailed judging rubric that spelled out three primary categories for judging success: user validation, design and implementation, and business model. The rubric also provided complete lists of yes/no and scaled questions for each of these three categories. These questions formed the basis for the judges’ ultimate decisions.

For example, under the “user validation” category, binary questions asked included: Did the team identify appropriate users? Did the team incorporate user interview feedback into its pitch? Did the team incorporate core user needs into its pitch? Scaled questions (scored from 0 to 5) included: How well does the solution fit proposed user needs? What quality of feedback did the team solicit from user interviews? Home many users did the team interview?

Specific judging criteria like these help keep teams focused on the essential elements of proposed solutions and increase the likelihood that the entries from participants are of a high quality.

Participants: Always keep in mind the stated goal of the competition, study the rules carefully and focus relentlessly on value. The purpose of events like the Global Legal Hackathon is to solve specific problems. It’s a lot easier to engage in lively conversations and conduct intense brainstorming sessions than it is to identify and execute the next steps required to bring a promising idea into the real world.  

While the Hackathon implicitly recognizes the power of technology in enabling innovation, it’s essential that participants focus their efforts on the idea behind the technology. Judges are focused on solutions to specific real-world problems. Developing a flashy tool is not the purpose of the event. In a few cases, Hackathon teams got their priorities backwards and tried valiantly to organize their business idea around a particular tool or process. When it came time to present, these groups often struggled to convince judges that their solution was reality-based and practical.

It was clear the most successful groups had carefully studied the judging criteria. These groups presented a detailed and feasible business model, demonstrated a thorough understanding of the needs of their target users, and executed a design that was razor-focused on those requirements. The technology deployed was a means to meeting those requirements.

The emergence of technologies like AI and blockchain are providing new opportunities for thoughtful entrepreneurs to develop low-cost applications that provide consumers with inexpensive, easy-to-use legal solutions to common problems. That’s the promise that the Hackathon is designed to fulfill. As a member of the judging panel, I can say I was truly inspired and excited by the ideas that competitors presented, and I am optimistic that events like these can quicken the pace of meaningful innovation in the industry.