Lawyers, developers team up at Ottawa legal hackathon

App to codify informal agreements takes top prize

Lawyers courted tech solutions from coders in Ottawa this past weekend, as the two ordinarily-disparate groups came together to crack the case at a legal-themed hackathon.

The Global Legal Hackathon brought together developers, designers and lawyers in 40 cities across the world this past weekend, all with the same goal of bringing technological solutions to an industry ripe for disruption.

Legal market analyst Jordan Furlong kicked off the weekend’s events at Bayview Yards, and he was blunt about his view of lawyers’ technical abilities.

“You have an appreciation of what technology can do. I can assure you that most lawyers do not,” he told the gathering of hackers on Friday evening.

Furlong suggested that many of the problems caused by law’s most notorious barriers could be solved through technical innovation. Some of the examples he had in mind: a general lack of education about legal processes has left half of Canadians without a valid will and the high, uncertain rates of hourly billing that are customary in the profession are driving many to self-represent in court.

“I think the reason we’re all here tonight, no matter where we’ve come from, no matter what we’re interested in doing, is one singular reason: And that is that the legal system, the justice system, needs you and needs us. And the need is extraordinary.”

Shake on it

A panel of experts including Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay and representatives from the Canadian Bar Association and the University of Ottawa Law School acted as the judges (jury and executioners) for the hackathons’ pitches.

Drawing on IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence program, teams developed solutions such as a chatbot that could conversationally explain legal concepts and an app that could estimate the degree of obligation in a contract through sentiment analysis.

But the winners were a group named 2Sign, a team of law students and IBM interns that came up with a solution to better guarantee informal deals struck via online marketplaces such as Kijiji.

“Everyone has a story about a handshake deal gone wrong,” said Mark Asfar, an articling student with Ottawa’s Momentum Law, during his pitch.

“When things go wrong, it sucks. Very often there’s no recourse for you because you shook someone’s hand, said some words, and there’s no proof.”

The team’s solution was an app with contract templates of common agreements that could be filled out through verbally answering questions such as who is the buyer or seller and any special conditions of the deal. Google’s voice-to-text AI would fill answers into the contract and record a concrete agreement on the app, ready for reference if anything goes wrong.

Top teams from competitions around the world will be remotely evaluated for a chance to head to New York City for the finals in April. The local victors also receive a legal services package from Momentum Law valued at $5,000.