Photo via Legal Hackers DFW

I had the pleasure of chatting with my friend Jameson Dempsey, one of the founding members and current board members of Legal Hackers. Legal Hackers is a global movement of people innovating at the intersection of law and technology. It’s an amazing community with 110 chapters (and growing) and I learned so much from chatting with Jameson about their decentralized approach, their beautiful open ethos and how they manage their tremendous global growth.

Below are raw notes from our conversation and some personal highlights for me – more details in the recording above. Thank you Jameson!

History

  • It started with one legal hackathon that then become a local meetup in NYC, called NY Legal Hackers Meetup.
  • Jameson was a part of that and then helped start the second chapter in DC.
  • From there it spread all over the US and now the world.
  • They have 110 chapters, they are present on every continent besides Antarctica

The intention

To use the hacker ethic and creative problem solving to advance the intersection of law and technology.

Inspirations

Code for America Brigade Community, Internet Society, Sandbox: distributed communities that are bound by a common mission.

Their ethos

At the core of Legal Hackers is this beautiful open ethos of being welcoming, embracing of diversity, being accessible, using creative problem solving for law and policy

  • Open: Legal Hackers is at the core an open community, which is not the tradition in legal community, and that’s the gap they are filling in the legal community.
  • Hacker ethic: creative problem solving to law and policy

Who is a Legal Hacker?

Anyone who shares the ethic of Legal Hackers can become a Legal Hacker. There are no clear membership markers, nobody pays dues, “people can just flow in and out”. This is very unusual for legal profession, where everything usually has “walled gardens”, it tends to be expensive to get into circles and community. Legal Hackers wants to flip this over, be a free resource. If you want to be part of the community, you’re welcome to join any event and welcome to come back. If you want to get more engaged, you are invited to become a co-creator and organizer.

Challenges of being such an open community

  • If you are so open, there is potential for movement to be co-opted. As anyone can flow in, anyone can become an organizer, and some people might be tempted to use the umbrella for personal benefits
  • That’s why they need clear rules of the road / protocols

Their core rules

  • non commercial
  • not a trade association: you don’t need to be a lawyer / startup guy to be part of this
  • not a political organization: they are bi-partisan and neutral on political issues

Their decentralized governance

  • Chapters get to decide most things for themselves: how they are organized,
  • It doesn’t make sense to dictate to local communities what to do
  • It’s important to lift up local voices
  • This is based on a central belief that every city has a valuable community and Legal Hackers can be a forum to lift them up
  • “The global community only thrives if the local communities are doing well”

The role of the central organization (HQ)

  • They have a legal entity (Legal Hackers LLC) that is the central organization
  • Role: facilitate connections between the chapters, create consistency
  • They have a chapter handbook
  • They have trademarked their logo, to create consistency with their brand
  • The central organization runs super lean. That has been critical to their success. They all have day jobs and do this on the side.
  • Inter-chapter efforts: they are connecting the different chapter leaders and helping them learn from each other: A Bogota lesson plan shared with Ukraine and Nigeria chapter. Serendipity through this loose decentralized connection.

What technology they use

  • They started on Meetup.com
  • By now different regions have different technology for their areas
  • They have global channels on LinkedIn, Slack, Telegram

Learnings about running a successful chapter:

1) Diverse local organizing team.

If organizers represent a diverse set of communities, a diverse set of people will feel comfortable showing up. If all organizers are lawyers, mostly lawyers will show up. Also helps distribute the workload. It’s important to have several people as organizers as it’s a lot of work. Fluctuations of volunteer work.

2) Active social media presence

  • Internal: a social network that allows them to connect with each other within the chapter and have a flow of information and resources without top-down help
  • External: have social media channels to radiate out and attract new people. They aim to create a channel for the local legal innovations that might not get coverage otherwise. That also helps other chapters to connect with them, to get inspired by them, to learn from each other. This helps with a key Legal hackers goal: Rapid dissemination of legal innovation.

3) Regularly happening, smaller in-person events

  • “There is a difference between an events company and a community. One of the things that’s really important for legal hackers chapters is for the events to be regular enough where people feel like they’re part of a community.”
  • They recommend chapters to host 8-12 events per year. This creates a “flow”.
  • “Catching up with someone every year is very different from catching up with someone every month. You end up talking about different things, because a lot of the small talk goes aside”

How important it is to be a volunteer organization

“When everyone there is a volunteer and people show up first as legal hackers – that is people who share the legal hackers ethos – it changes the tenor of the conversation because people are there to meet with other people who share a common identity, rather than to sell goods and services, rather than to advance some sort of policy initiative, people are getting together because they share something in common with one another.”

Why do people show up?

  • “A global craving of people in the legal profession for something different”: an open source approach to the legal system
  • “People who come to learn are actually giving as much to the community as people who come to teach”

How does it matter for the local members that they are part of global chapters?

  • Legal innovation is still a pretty new concept, “if they see an open global community, they know that they are not alone”, they can learn from best practices, they can connect with like minds across the globe
  • It allows for rapid global dissemination
  • It is through global collaboration that a culture and mindset is changed across a whole industry: from a closed to an open mindset.

Growth challenges

  • Data management challenges: Coordination and spreading information among 110 chapters becomes data management issue. Plus another 40 chapters in formation. Currently they have around 330 current organizers.
  • Ensuring consistency while enabling localization and local experimentation
  • Adding regional structures to the global and local: They put on annual global summit. But it’s expensive to bring people together on global basis, they starting regional events across the different continents.

Can organization continue to scale purely volunteer driven?

  • Jameson says yes, technology and smart processes will enable that. And it would change the fundamentals of the organization if not everyone were to be a volunteer.
  • Being volunteer driven keeps the organization lean and prevents mission creep.