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Hacked off

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Matthew Gingell, general counsel at Oxygen House Group, recently organised a legal ‘hack’ with other lawyers in his area to prove the hypothesis that the law should not be a barrier to innovation. Here, he explains how he organised it, and the insight and benefits it has brought to his business.

I believe that innovation needn’t only apply to a few select teams within a business – it needs to come from all angles, even legal.

A hack, or ‘hackathon’, is an event where people meet to collaborate using technology, with the aim of exploring and creating new ideas, and ideally solving problems within a short and often intensive timeframe. This is a particularly useful approach for developers who are time-poor or constrained by a corporate culture that does not allow risk-taking.

As lawyers, we ‘hack’ problems for our clients all the time, but there is always a risk of failure and, of course, the added pressure of time and anticipated costs. In the legal profession, we have some of the best and brightest minds, but we are stifling our full creative potential by restricting risk.   

Shouldn’t we be learning from other industries and adopting innovation, even in law? By using the tools of our profession in a creative, more innovative way, we could enhance the way we help our businesses, clients, and potentially solve some of today’s socio and economic issues.

How we did it

At the end of last year, we ran our first successful hackathon. I’d been inspired by a hack that Exeter City Futures held, and an energy report it commissioned, which revealed that only six per cent of solar energy capacity was installed on commercial rooftops in greater Exeter.

The casual environment stimulated discussion and innovation in a way that I don’t believe would happen in a private practice setting

The report found that legal issues are one of the principal barriers to the deployment of renewable energy solutions. I was surprised that our profession was serving as a barrier to commerce, especially when it impacts on improving the environment we live and work in through the generation of renewable energy.

I decided to see if we could apply the same hackathon framework to a specific legal issue, that was not only relevant to our team, but could also help the wider legal community. We decided to try to prove the hypothesis: ‘The law and lawyers should not be a barrier to the widespread adoption of rooftop solar arrays on commercial buildings.’

I spent half a day organising the hack, preparing an invite list and the agenda and identifying the main objectives and KPIs we’d use to measure success. The event was aligned closely with Oxygen House’s values, so the business was keen to support us in trialling it.

We decided to invite local law firms within Exeter, public sector lawyers and a legal academic from Exeter University, providing us with a broad range of individuals and challenges to hack / discuss. We were keen for Exeter to be seen as a thought leader on sustainability matters. Pulling together a diverse group of lawyers who live and / or work in Exeter meant we could get a large representation across a small area, and then look to expand this further afield.

Participation and engagement were much higher than anticipated; eight local and national law firms, Exeter University Law School and Oxygen House’s in-house team were all represented on the day. The conversation and ideas were collaborative, covering both legal and non-legal problems and how we might go about solving them.

What did we learn?

Whilst the solutions we discussed will be valuable, there were a number of other unexpected benefits and observations that we made from the process.

  • Bringing together lawyers from private practice, in-house and academia together gave diversity in perspectives, and surfaced new and innovative insight to issues that we may never have had considered previously.
  • An event led by in-house teams, where we were all able to share our challenges, enabled us to break down the barriers between law firms and resulted in cooperation and a willingness to share ideas and trust.
  • Problem-solving and virtual risk-taking in a casual environment stimulated discussion and innovation in a way that I don’t believe would happen in a private practice setting.
  • Creating and pitching the right theme or problem to hack is important, but you may end up discussing areas around this and not just your key theme.
  • Thought leadership in a global economy is a necessity, and more than simply a corporate social responsibility project.
  • Setting yourself a challenge of creating new, innovative solutions should help not just the legal department, but also the other teams within your organisation, and perhaps the local community too.
  • Holding short, focused sessions pushes participants to distil their ideas down to actionable solutions. It also makes best use of our scarce time.
  • A hackathon can create a community of like-minded innovative lawyers to run ideas past – a great way of expanding our network and creating some fantastic business opportunities for everyone.
  • Creating and hosting a hackathon was good for the in-house team and the whole organisation, as it created a sense of accomplishment for those who took part. We learnt new skills and ways of thinking about the challenges we were facing.
  • It allowed us to focus on more than just targets and the bottom line.

The diversity of the participants who took part reaffirmed my belief that the legal profession can and should do more to innovate and provide solutions for society. When we do our next hackathon, we’d like to include more people, as no representatives from the public sector were unable to attend on this occasion, and involve a mixture of junior and senior lawyers to get a wider range of ideas and opinions.  

The legal profession can and should do more to innovate and provide solutions for society

We found the hack was well worth doing. It was quick and easy to set up, there was minimal cost involved, and the results were rewarding. 

Next steps

Oxygen House Group is currently drafting a white paper summarising our collective findings. Our next hackathon theme has already been decided, and will focus on gender diversity in the legal profession. The issues have been highlighted again recently, with The Lawyer reporting that only 23 per cent of partners in its Global 200 firms list are female. Get in touch with me if your firm wishes to be involved. 

To conclude, the most important things to remember when holding your own hackathon are to:

  • include a broad range of participants
  • create an environment where ideas can be comfortably shared and discussed
  • ensure you share these wider afield.

This framework can be applied to any sector or team, and anyone who is keen to be more innovative within their business.   

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