Clockwise, from top right: Cameron Gibson, Daniel Elliott, Irene Mo, Sarah McCormick take part in a hackathon at UCLA Law School.
Clockwise, from top right: Cameron Gibson, Daniel Elliott, Irene Mo, Sarah McCormick take part in a hackathon at UCLA Law School. (Patience Haggin)

LOS ANGELES — At 2 p.m. on Sunday, 30 young strivers were hunched over their laptops in a soda can-littered classroom at UCLA School of Law. But they weren’t taking an exam.

Instead they were bearing down on the finish line in “Code the Deal LA,” competing in teams to develop software that can improve transactional practice and access to affordable housing.

From 10 a.m. Saturday through the 3:00 p.m. Sunday deadline, teams of law students, young lawyers and programmers raced to create a winning app. The $3,000 grand prize went to a team that flew in from Michigan State University College of Law in matching green-and-white T-shirts. Their app, BigTenant, allows renters to scan in their paper leases and searches for keywords that might signal illegal clauses and fees. It also includes a step-by-step questionnaire to help tenants determine whether their apartment’s maintenance concerns justify withholding rent.

“[The app] is like a pocket lawyer,” said Daniel Elliott, a wide-grinning 3L JD-MBA candidate at MSU wearing the Hawaiian shirt he bought at the beach the night before . “Eighty percent of the time this app will walk you through this, and you won’t need a lawyer.”

And the other twenty percent of the time? The app will include a referral service pointing the tenant to local attorneys who can help—which may also provide the app with a source of sustaining revenue. The weekend gathering was Legal Hackers’ second annual hackathon aimed at solutions for legal industry pain points in transactional law.

Amy Wan, general counsel at the Los Angeles-based real estate crowdfunding startup Patch of Land, organized the event, along with Nixon Peabody entertainment transactions associate Maureen Klewicki and Cyrus Safar of legal tech company E-STET. It was sponsored by Nixon Peabody, Legal Zoom and a slew of legal tech companies.

The Michigan team, which included six students at the event plus an additional developer who worked remotely, had prepared the idea ahead of time in a series of meetings where they’d parceled out the research and coding tasks. But they were careful not to jump the gun: per the rules, they could not write a line of code before the clock starts ticking. Still, they found time enough to drink beers and toss donuts at each other while working.

By 10 p.m. Saturday night, the UCLA classroom was closing. Teams could—and did—work elsewhere, though the MSU team first drove to the coast and jumped in the ocean.

Hackathons like Code the Deal have cropped up as students, educators and existing legal services providers prepare for a more automated profession.

Daniel Linna, the jaunty glasses-wearing director of a legal research and development program at MSU Law, who traveled to L.A. with the students, likes to say the next generation of lawyers will need to be T-shaped: they’ll need deep legal expertise—the long stem of the T—coupled with basic skills in general business areas like technology, project management and marketing—the cross of the T.

T-shaped lawyers are rare, and they were in short supply at the hackathon. Instead, most teams were made up of coders and lawyers, rather than coder-lawyers. The lawyers and law students were there for the legal aspects; the coders were there to put another hackathon on the resume.

“The subject doesn’t matter, as long as we can implement our coding skill,” explained Aaron Liu, an intense master’s candidate in computer science at the University of Southern California.

He and two other computer scientists teamed with a few young lawyers they met Saturday, who helped formulate the idea for a contract-drafting program that draws on a library of template provisions. But the technical and non-technical workloads weren’t evenly distributed: At 8 p.m. Saturday night the lawyers had left and the programers were still at work. Would they share any winnings equally? Liu laughed at the idea. “We have to make the app work first. We’re not too worried about that part yet.” They won some gift cards.

As it turned out, more of the teams tried to tackle access to housing than time—or tedium-saving apps for corporate transactions. Judging is based partly on the quality of the idea, and partly on how close to completion the team got.

Another winning app would let those seeking affordable housing from local, state or federal programs complete one master application and submit with a single click. Called AHome, it was developed by a programmer, a designer, paralegal and corporate attorney who teamed up on the spot.

Samire Elhouty of L.A.’s Borton Petrini, The fourth-year transactions attorney—who, in a buttoned-up dress shirt looked more like a lawyer than anyone else in the room—said the team plans to keep working on the app and eventually roll it out to the public. A streamlined single-portal application would help tenants find better housing options, Elhouty said.

As for a business model, Elhouty suggesed the housing authorities might even sponsor such a service.

“The goal is to make it so easy for them that they could not say no,” Elhouty said.

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