Innovation - Staging a legal hackathon for in-house teams

Holding a hackathon for your in-house legal team is a format that can help drive innovation and also prove highly engaging for participants.

Innovation continues to be a hot topic for lawyers and in-house legal teams.

Both law firms and in-house teams know there are opportunities to drive efficiencies and improve services through adopting new ways of working, using innovative organisational structures and adopting new technology. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will have more and more influence on how we do our jobs, particularly in automating some of the lower-end or mundane tasks, and driving more effective knowledge management.

When it comes to innovation, particularly in how we apply technology, it pays to involve members of your in-house team, and potentially other functions, in any innovation processes because:

  • their creative input is critical in coming up with ideas as they know the issues, pain points and opportunities that arise from working across the business every day;
  • they can tweak and develop ideas that might seem far-fetched or half-formed into something that may be implementable and achievable;
  • their buy-in is essential to making an idea actually happen and involving everybody from the beginning is the best way to drive buy-in; and
  • its engaging for staff to work together to come up with new and innovative ideas.

There are a number of different methods and formats to drive innovation and come up with new ideas. Some of these are more to do with the way individuals interact with each other such as ‘Working out Loud’ and are often about developing a particular mindset.

Other formats such as a hackathon are more specific.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event, usually held over two to three days, where different teams of individuals collaborate to work on a technical solution to a particular problem or challenge, usually ending up with some kind of working prototype or output that demonstrates the idea in action. The event may be a physical one but can also be virtual. Over the duration of the hackathon teams will likely manoeuvre through different stages which move from a larger idea to something quite specific.

The London legal hackathon website has a good description:

“A hackathon is a competition where multi-disciplinary teams come together to collaborate, build and launch mobile, web apps or any other innovations aimed at solving a particular problem. They usually work in small groups over a couple of days...the goal is to come up with a prototype or proposal at the end of the hackathon to present in front of a panel of judges.”

The name of a “hackathon” heavily implies IT involvement in developing prototype solutions as part of the final result and while this is usually the case, the term “hackathon” is increasingly being used to describe any event where teams innovate to come up with some of output that solves a problem.

Are there already legal hackathons?

There are already legal hackathons, both involving law firms and in-house teams. For example, there is already a “Global Legal Hackathon” event, an annual international event involving many law firms and other organisations within the legal industry ecosystem, that holds events in different cities around the world including London.

Meanwhile Australian financial services provider Westpac organised a hackathon with the help of an external law firm involving fifty lawyers and IT professionals that iterated potential solutions involving automation, enquiry handling and secondments to firms on Westpac’s panel.

Who should be involved?

A key principle behind a hackathon is that diversity generally leads to better outputs and a more enjoyable event. If you’re wanting to hold a hackathon around in-house legal services, then obviously it needs to involve your in-house team and probably some people from your IT function involved in application procurement and development. But it could also involve people from your business, other functions dealing with risk and other key stakeholders. You could also involve externals including people from a law firm, consultants, IT specialist, in-house teams from other organisations and so on. For smaller in-house teams this approach is likely to be essential to get enough attendees to make the hackathon viable.

You may also want to partner with a consultancy who are used to running a hackathon and can give you professional input into the format as well as facilitation on the day. It also goes without saying that having diversity in the individuals attending is also highly beneficial and making sure individual teams reflect this diversity also leads to better collaboration.

If you’re a global team a physical event may not be possible. In these cases, it is possible to hold a virtual hackathon, probably held over a longer period, with teams uploading input into a digital platform where teams can also comment and vote on the output.

Five important approaches

While all the things you need to do to plan and run a hackathon are too numerous to cover in this article (including the format for the day, process, judging and incentives) here are some important approaches to consider.

1. Apply constraints

Counter-intuitively, innovation tends to work better when “constraints” are applied. The first of these is to define a particular theme or challenge (or challenges) for the hackathon. This gives participants something tangible to apply bigger ideas to, gives a starting point for discussion, makes it easier to compare and judge different efforts and, most importantly, ensures the relevancy of the output of the hackathon.

The second constraint is time. Having a start and finish helps to drive momentum and engagement, and also ensures everybody knows the time commitment involved before they have to get back to the “day job”

2. Follow-up on the ideas

It’s critical to actually follow up on your ideas and after the hackathon set up a project to make something happen, carry out further investigations or hold a more focused follow-up workshop to turn an idea or prototype into something tangible and achievable.

The reason for this, is not only to take advantage of any great ideas that can help everybody in their daily work and, achieve your team and organisational goals, but also to maintain the integrity and credibility of your hackathon event. If everybody has put in an effort and nothing comes out of it then it is disengaging – people are less likely to want to contribute next time around.

3. Learn from other functions and your peers

If you’re working in a large organisation, you’re likely to have other functions and divisions that are already trying out hackathons or similar. You may be able to leverage the format, platform and experience of others and make it work for your in-house team. You may also have peers in law firms or other in-house teams who have attended a successful hackathon and give input on what works and what is less successful.

4. Keep an open-mind and enjoy the event

There’s a good list of tips from Thomson Reuters about holding a legal hackathon, including advice on keeping an open mind and enjoying the event. Setting aside the hierarchies, barriers and rules of play of the normal workplace to try and think creatively is important as well as ensuring everyone has fun and feels energised by the event. If you’re doing a hackathon for the first time it also may not turn out quite how you envisage or take an unexpected turn. In these cases, it can help to “go with the flow”.

5. Hack your hackathon

You don’t necessarily have to follow the classic methodology of a “hackathon”, particularly if you are a virtual team or it’s very difficult operationally to secure a particular time from everybody to participate. You can take the principles and sprit of the hackathon and mould it into a format that works for you, your team and your organisation. In the spirit of innovation, it’s fine to try something out and then evolve it so it works better next time. There are no rights and wrongs.


Hackathons are not necessarily for everybody, but they can be an intriguing and exciting format to help iterate ideas for innovation and move larger and woollier ideas into IT prototypes or even business cases that are more achievable. Hackathons are now relatively commonplace in larger organisations and increasingly within the legal sector, so this is something to definitely consider for your in-house legal team.