Legal Tech: "You don't have to be a hacker for our hackathon".

11 Nov 2021

A workshop gives law students insight into programming.

© Privat

Machine contracts, websites for airline passenger lawsuits and computers that check files - digitalization is also advancing in the jurisdiction and "legal tech" is taking over more and more tasks. In an innovative workshop at LMU, prospective lawyers were given an insight into programming and possible applications.

"We wanted to take away students' fear of technology," explains the course organizer, Sebastian Nagl. After all, as "digital natives," they all had smartphones and knew how to use the many apps on them. "But very few of them know how the digital technology behind them works," says the 32-year-old. But that's exactly what they need to be able to assess issues in terms of IT law or, on the other hand, to develop them themselves. To remedy this, Nagl offered the extracurricular workshop "Legal Tech Applications in Practice" at LMU's Center for Legal Informatics last winter semester. The event, held in cooperation with the Technical University of Munich and the Munich Legal Tech Student Association e.V., was recently awarded LMU's Teaching Innovation Prize.

The field of "legal tech" is still developing in Germany, says Sebastian Nagl, who himself currently works as a trainee lawyer at the Higher Regional Court of Munich and as a "legal engineer" in a law firm. "While IT law has long been super-relevant due to the advance of e-commerce and social platforms, legal tech - a modern word for legal informatics - arrived here relatively late. The basic idea: How can I solve, or at least optimize, a legal problem through technical applications." As an example, "When a law firm used to get a big mandate, the lawyers would first spend months poring over files to check legally relevant contexts. Today, the computer does that in a few minutes." Reminders, speeding tickets and debt collection letters, for example, are "all already out of the lawyer's sphere of activity" and have been left to legal tech companies.

Getting a feel for programming

The lawyer as a human being is playing less and less of a role because technology is taking over the work. For example, some lawyers now let their clients click through digital questionnaires to automatically pre-sort whether there is a chance of success in purely formal terms. "That can save both sides time and money, for example if a mandatory deadline has already been exceeded." Another example, he says, is websites such as Flightright, where citizens can assert their air passenger rights in a semi-automated way. And the Federal Court of Justice has just approved machine-based contract generators in a groundbreaking ruling. "Such lawyer privileges are crumbling," Nagl explains. "There is less and less additional work left for the lawyer, who can instead focus on the core business. The interaction with the client and the legal evaluation on a more complex level. All the things that - as yet - cannot be digitized.

"For Sebastian Nagl, working with computers is something of a matter of the heart. "In my youth in the mountains around Berchtesgaden, I was a gamer - and during my law studies at LMU, I taught myself programming on the side - as a technical balance to legal learning, so to speak." Today, he has his first state examination in his pocket and attests to "all the characteristics of a classic nerd: I play Magic, Dungeons and Dragons and also program in my free time.

To prepare less tech-savvy students for the changing legal market, his workshop was divided into two parts. "First, a block seminar was designed to give students a feel for programming, for example with Python or JavaScript, and thus prepare them for the second module: our 'Legal Tech Hackathon'."

Chatbot for lawyers

At a "hackathon" - a neologism made up of "hacking" and "marathon" - participants work together to create software products or find solutions to problems using digital technology within a specified time. "The teams stay in one room for days," says Sebastian Nagl, who has participated in numerous hackathons himself, "supplied with food, coffee and beer for the evening. While programming, they support each other, sit together in between, just have fun." In his workshop, he wanted to recreate that in Corona times - and held the hackathon as a Zoom meeting.

Among the six teams of five students each, however, there were then not only lawyers and computer scientists, but also students of mathematics and psychology, for example. "Because the more interdisciplinary the hackathon," explains Sebastian Nagl, "the more practical the results." One team, for example, developed software that makes predictions for the verdict from statements of facts in court by examining the language used, its choice of words, for example, and repetitions. Another came up with the idea for a "tool" that helps citizens find the appropriate court in matters. And a third team came up with a chatbot function that lets users communicate with their lawyer in advance. Instead of finished software programs, the teams were able to present so-called 'mock-ups' to the jury - painted paper posters that showed, step by step, the individual screen views of an application. "Because you didn't have to become a hacker for our hackathon - it was clearly aimed at beginners." Accordingly, the jury did not evaluate the technical quality of the digital product, but the underlying idea.

Looking back, although virtual, a lot of it was like a real hackathon. "I didn't sleep the whole weekend," Sebastian Nagl sums up, but doesn't seem to be sad about it. "All the students learned a lot and had fun to boot. I am very grateful to LMU and the cooperation partners. And for me personally, it was the highlight of my entire time at university."

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